AHA CEO Ruth Atherley to speak at TEDx BCIT

Posted by Paul Holman of AHA Creative Strategies on November 21st, 2014

AHA-logoHere at the AHA office, we’re used to working with clients to develop speeches and presentations. Today we’re talking about what Ruth will speak about at TEDx BCIT on January 24, 2015. She received the call yesterday confirming her as a speaker for this engaging, thought-provoking event. We did an AHA Happy Dance in the office after that call.

We’re looking forward to this event and seeing all of the other speakers that day.

#UnitedSUCKS – Not a good brand reputation (but true)

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on November 19th, 2014

UnitedI travel quite a bit for business and pleasure, and I have to say my most recent travel on United Airlines (from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Vancouver) was the worst experience I have ever had on an airline. #UnitedSUCKS (the trending hashtag) should be painted on their airplanes. Talk about the inability to deliver on a brand promise – although I have to admit, I am not sure they actually have a brand promise, understand, or even care about what their brand reputation is. Their customer service was so shockingly bad that it almost felt like we were being pranked. As it turns out, when I shared our experience as it was happening on Facebook with family, friends and colleagues (many of whom are journalists – quite a few are travel writers), there were dozens of responses talking about how United Airlines had treated them poorly too.

I am going to write this blog post in two installments – there was so much wrong with how United Airlines treated us and many, many other passengers that it will take more than one post to explain it. I am appalled by the unprofessional, often rude, clearly incompetent actions by United staff in both Puerto Rico and Houston (where we ended up stranded after United caused us to miss our connection to Vancouver).

We always tell clients that public relations and a brand promise are connected. Having everyone who works for your organization deliver on the brand promise is crucial to your success and a strong brand reputation. Customer service is at the core of your business – especially if you are a service organization. Clearly, no one cares about this at United Airlines. They are a shining example of what not to do when it comes to customer service.

Two cruise ships docked in Puerto Rico on Sunday, November 16 – letting thousands of passengers off – most of whom were heading home. Many had flights with United Airlines. Paul and I were two of those people. We got to the airport at 9 a.m. – our flight boarded at 1:20 p.m. We were going to spend some time working before we boarded, but there was no one at the United desk to check us or anyone else in. However, Southwest, Delta and all of the other counters were open. The United desk was completely empty.

At about 9:15 a.m., people started to line up at the United area – so we did too. We were about 25 people back in the line. We expected that the desk would open at 9:30 a.m. – nope. 10 a.m. came and went. Still not one United employee to check anyone in. The lineup kept on growing longer and longer and longer… The clock hit 10:30 a.m. and still no one arrived to take our bags (we had already checked in online) or to help any of the hundreds of other United passengers who were growing increasingly frustrated with standing in line (while so many other people who had booked with different airlines sailed through check-in and were off to their gate). There were no signs to say when the desk would open. No one at the airport knew when the United staff would show up.

At 11 a.m., the United Desk finally opened with two people (one for first class and one for economy). By that time, all of the other airlines had maybe 20 people in line at any given time. They had checked in the majority of their passengers – passengers who were now through security and enjoying a coffee or bite to eat on the other side. The United lineup had grown to hundreds and hundreds of people. Frustration was in the air.

There seemed to be some confusion about how a lineup works, as the first person to arrive at the United desk took anyone who came up to her – instead of looking to the first person in line (the people who had been standing there since 9:15 a.m.). People from the middle of the line started to swarm her and she began checking them in. It was chaos.

By the time we got to the front to be checked in – about an hour and 15 minutes later (even though we were only behind 25 other people in the “proper” lineup), they had added two other United check-in agents. Yet – the line behind us had not become any shorter. It was long and full of upset and frustrated people. We wondered if some of the people at the back of the line would be checked in by the time their flights left. As we were checking in – I mentioned that to the person behind the United Airlines desk. She shook her head and said: “The cruise ships do this to us every week. They let you off the ship too early.” Really? So this happens every week when the cruise ship lets people disembark and readies the ship for the new passengers… Apparently, no one at United realizes that if they opened up the counter an hour or two earlier it wouldn’t turn into such chaos. This wasn’t the cruise ship’s fault. It was United’s for understaffing a busy period – that they know happens every week!

Adding two people for an extra two hours each, once a week – how much would that really cost budget-wise? I would estimate less than $250 in hourly wages. And what is the cost to their brand reputation for all of the people who went on Facebook and Twitter that morning and talked about how poorly they treat passengers and showed how long the line was. (You actually couldn’t get it all into one photo – the line wrapped a long way around the airport.) Or all of the people who said they won’t fly United again. Me included. It seems like they are busy watching their pennies while dollars are flying out the door.

We finally got checked in, through security, and then sat at our gate. Because we were near the front of the line, we got to the gate about an hour before our flight – which was a luxury compared to what others experienced. We saw person after person coming to the gate minutes before boarding. They were frustrated, angry and upset about the inefficiency of United. People – including some elderly and physically challenged individuals – stood in line for anywhere between two and three hours trying to check in. No other airline at the San Juan airport had this kind of issue.

There was no communication from United to passengers waiting in the line to check in. No one from United asked anyone in the long lineup what their flight time was – or if someone needed to be rushed through so they wouldn’t miss their flight. If they were cutting it close, people had to take it upon themselves to cut into the line to get checked in and go through security. And everyone I asked in the airport who was booked on United said the people checking them in blamed it all on the cruise ships and the fact that “every week, they do this to us.” Talk about denial.

It was a nightmare. By the time people boarded their flights, they were frustrated. And it only got worse from there…

Stay tuned for the next post on more challenges United faced with its brand promise. To give you a glimpse of things to come, it took us 32 hours to get from San Juan to Vancouver and we arrived in Vancouver 46.5 hours ago but haven’t seen our luggage yet.

They really should change the branding on their planes to #UnitedSUCKS. It’s what their reputation is – and it’s the brand promise they deliver.

(Image credit: © Boarding1now | Dreamstime.com – United Airlines Boeing 757 Photo)

What makes a good client?

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on November 05th, 2014

AHA-logoA good relationship between a client and an agency is a two-way street. We have been fortunate at AHA – for the most part, we have had exceptional relationships with our clients. However, that isn’t to say that we haven’t had relationships that just didn’t work – sometimes, it just isn’t a good fit in personality or “chemistry” (that magical ingredient we search for). Other times, the client’s expectations may not have matched with what we knew we could deliver. (I remember one client saying that we needed to get him on the cover of Maclean’s magazine because I had worked there… his story wouldn’t have interested Maclean’s and when I explained this – he just didn’t understand why I couldn’t call up my former colleagues and “get it done.” Needless to say, we had to end our relationship with this client). And, of course, every communications person I know has had a client that is just too “out there” for a productive relationship to exist.

A positive client/agency relationship benefits everyone involved. At AHA, we go the extra mile for our clients, and that’s because of the good relationships we have built together. It’s hard to be motivated to work over a holiday weekend for a client who is unreasonably demanding, has unrealistic expectations, or is just hard to work with; but for the clients you like and respect – you dig in and do what needs to be done.

Below are our five key elements for a positive relationship.

Define goals

When we know what is expected of us, and what our client has committed to deliver, we can focus on strategy, creativity and generating results. We know that every once in a while, a goal post has to move – but that should be the exception, not the rule. Understanding expectations, our roles and our goals makes both the AHA team and our clients happy.

Keep us in the loop and respond to our requests for information

It is crucial that we are kept up-to-date with what’s new and our clients’ marketing initiatives. (That means regular meetings and knowing what is going on at the client office.) When we need information or a response (to a media request for an interview, for example), it is important that we get this as quickly as possible, or at least know the client’s schedule so that we can understand why they aren’t responding.

Communicate regularly

We connect with our clients on a regular basis – a quick coffee, a phone call or an e-mail just to check in – and they do that with us too. At AHA, we send status reports each Monday – so our clients always know what we are working on and where the project budget or monthly retainer stands. If a campaign isn’t going the way we thought it would, we brainstorm internally and reach out to the client to discuss solutions – and they will flag it if they see something that doesn’t look effective as well. If there is an issue, we come together with our clients to discuss it. Regular communication is essential to a good relationship, and it is important that both the agency and client are proactive in this area.

Make us feel like part of the team

Making your agency feel like a seamless part of your team is really important. Department or organizational e-mails, team meetings, including us in company functions… these are all of value. Our clients see AHA as an important part of the team. There is huge benefit to that – we get to know the marketing and communications people (including those managing social media), we understand the internal challenges that you face, and we have an emotional investment in your success. For AHA and our clients, there is no “us” and “them” – it’s all “we” – and our clients will tell you that provides exceptional return-on-investment.

Pay us on time

While this might seem like a no-brainer – not paying your agency on time can create a problem in your relationship. Treat us with respect – and pay us on time. When you don’t pay our invoice on time, trust is lost and that can negatively impact how we work together.

AHA CEO to speak at CPRS Vancouver event

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on October 27th, 2014

AHA-logoOn Wednesday, October 29, I will have the privilege of speaking at the Canadian Public Relations Society Vancouver chapter with the Honourable Wally Oppal, Q.C., who was the Commissioner of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry (MWCI).

The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry was an important initiative that was tasked with making findings and recommendations regarding the conduct of police in handling numerous reported cases of missing women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – a controversial, highly sensitive subject with a diverse range of stakeholder groups.

I served, with the support of the AHA team, as director of communications for the MWCI and as editor of Forsaken: The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry Report. This was the 1,400-page, five-volume report for the Commission. I also wrote the executive summary.

I look forward to speaking with the Commissioner. Working on this project is a highlight of my career, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with the MWCI team. These were exceptional professionals dedicated to making improvements in the world. Working on the MWCI was one of the most challenging things I have ever done professionally. It was a 24/7, seven days a week job – that was emotional, demanding and unrelenting.

As a communications person, I knew how crucial the communications role was in this initiative. There was a wide range of stakeholders and it was important that each of these groups was kept informed – even during times when they were being highly and publicly critical of the Commission. I also have to say, I was fortunate that Commissioner Oppal, Senior Legal Counsel Art Vertlieb, Policy Counsel Dr. Melina Buckley, and the Commission team also knew how important it was to inform, update and strategically respond to the stakeholders.

During the presentation, we are going to discuss some of the key communication elements from our work during the Inquiry and the development of the report. They include:

  • Managing controversial, high stakes communication with tight deadlines and diverse stakeholder groups.
  • The importance of planning ahead when it comes to potential issues and controversy.
  • How a communications professional can build a trust relationship with the leadership team during a challenging time.
  • The reality of embargoed information in the age of social media.
  • How to manage a consistent message when communicating with diverse stakeholder groups.

There was certainly much more to the communications aspect of working at the Commission, but these five areas are, I believe, at the foundation of strategic communication outreach.

Another component that will certainly thread through what Commissioner Oppal and I talk about is how we balanced the emotional side of the work we were tasked to do. Everyone who worked at the Commission cared deeply about having recommendations made that would make a positive difference to some of our most vulnerable citizens. This feeling of dedication, passion and commitment to making a difference ran through everything that we did – it wasn’t just a job for any of us. We were all emotionally involved. And we all had a commitment to help make positive change. I know I had to be vigilant that I didn’t let my or anyone else’s emotions influence my actions – it had to be about effectively managing the communications aspects for the Commission, instead of leaping into a discussion about feelings and emotions (positive, negative or defensive).

Commissioner Oppal is a great speaker and I look forward to discussing the communication aspects with him at this event – which will have an informal setting. Since there are two of us speaking, my sense is that it will be a little more interactive than a typical presentation. It will be interesting and, I hope, informative for attendees.

The event is on October 29, from 7:30 a.m. – 9 a.m., at the Metropolitan Hotel, at 645 Howe Street in Vancouver. If you are interested in attending the event, you can register at: https://members.cprsvancouver.com/eventcalendar.aspx.

What makes a good agency/client relationship?

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on October 16th, 2014

Shaking HandsAs a communications agency, we don’t do anything in isolation. We work with clients, strategic partners, other PR agencies, media, bloggers, online influencers, government, community members, stakeholders, target markets, the public… the list is never-ending. That means we had better know how to play nice with others.

For today’s blog post, I am going to focus on what we do to create a strong relationship with our clients – there are responsibilities on each side. In my next blog post, I will focus on what we look for in a good client. (We all know that a good client gets a more productive communications team and bad clients suck the energy out of you.)

Below is a list of what we believe makes a good agency/client relationship.

Define Scope of Work

That means laying it out in a letter of agreement and ensuring that the client understands what they are paying for, how much they are paying, and how often. This agreement also means that we know their expectations of us. By doing this, if a project expands, it is easy to sit down with the client and explain what has changed and what it will take to include the new piece of work in the contract. And, if the scope of work lessens, we have that conversation too.

Communicate Regularly

We make sure that we communicate with our clients on a regular basis. That can be via e-mail, phone calls or in meetings; sometimes it’s just a quick update so they know the status of the project. We have clients who use us as their marketing and communications department – and often that means they handover the work and we have a monthly meeting and check in when we need something. We go past that and provide weekly status reports and we call and check in to find out what is new, challenging or if something has changed. We don’t leave the client in the dark – ever.

Stay on Track

We meet our deadlines and our budgets. If there is any kind of issue, we inform the client and explain why as soon as possible.

It’s Not Just 9-5

We also make ourselves available to our clients. I know some communications professionals who don’t answer their phone after 5 p.m. That’s not how we work – if a client needs me, they can get me. We work with clients in a lot of different time zones. If a client has a concern or an idea and they want to connect to discuss it, that is part of my role. And certainly during an issue or crisis, I am available 24/7.

Normally, we work with communications managers, directors, vice presidents, presidents and CEOs – and their schedules are busy. Sometimes, the only time they have to speak with me is on a Saturday morning. I have to say that we have had some clients who have needed to have boundaries set. A random 7 a.m. call on a Saturday morning to talk about an idea for a blog post doesn’t work, but a meeting set for a Saturday morning because the client has been out of town or was in meetings with lawyers all week because of an acquisition or merger – I am there. For the most part, our clients have always been respectful about contacting us outside of office hours, but they absolutely know that when they need us – we are there for them.

Go the Extra Mile

We go the extra mile. Every so often a client will come to us after working with another agency that they weren’t happy with. When I review the work done, it’s not that it was terribly done, it just seems that they didn’t take that extra step to make it great or exceptional. We are always working to do that. We love to exceed expectations… it makes our AHA crew do a happy dance and it keeps our clients loyal.

Provide Sound Advice

We aren’t “yes” people. Our clients pay us for our expertise and experience. I have had to deliver some tough feedback over the years and not everyone in the room was happy with me at times, but I had to do my job. If we feel that a client is going in the wrong direction, we will explain why we think that and provide advice on what to do.

Be Professional

We take our work seriously. Our clients know we like to have fun, but they also know that we’re a solid professional team and that they can count on us to deliver. They trust us – and that is important.

It isn’t always easy or convenient to do all the things necessary to build a great client/agency relationship, but you need to work at them. When a client trusts us with their brand reputation, it’s our job to do what it takes to meet the objectives. The points in this blog are a big part of how we do that and how we get great clients who stay with us for years.

Is it editorial or advertorial?

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on October 08th, 2014

Question mark imageThe world of media relations is getting trickier and trickier. I was listening to a news radio station this morning and they had a counsellor/therapist on to talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder and how the shorter days can influence our moods. There wasn’t any real news value attached to the interview, except that we are heading into shorter days. There was no news to report, no survey results, or a big breakthrough in helping to treat people; the interview rehashed the same stuff we always hear.

Interestingly enough, the counsellor/therapist is from a company that regularly advertises on this station. I recognized the company name and about five minutes after the interview, their ad came on. Hmmm….

It’s a fact of life that by being an advertiser, you are on the station’s radar should they need to do an interview about something you know about. But more and more today we are seeing the lines blur, and what would have been called advertising or advertorial is frequently being passed off as editorial. That is a frightening thing to me. We – as a society – count on journalists to be that unbiased source of information. If someone is getting media coverage because they are paying for it – how can they be unbiased?

We all know media companies are having financial issues, and this may be one of the ways they are able to keep their heads above water. But if the way to get good media coverage is to bundle it in with your advertising purchase, then it’s not unbiased media coverage and it shouldn’t be dressed up like it is.

Employee engagement – delivering on the brand promise

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on September 25th, 2014

brandEvery communications professional has seen this happen. You work hard to develop a strong, reputable brand, the brand voice and the brand promise. You create brand standard guidelines and you build out a tool kit for staff to use when creating documents, presentations or in any communication of the brand. You generate great media coverage where your CEO, President or GM hits the key messages and positions the brand well.

A success, right? Not so fast. Then a client, customer, guest or patient shows up to the frontline and no one delivers on the brand promise (#EpicFail).

A great brand and brand reputation have to be brought to life through the actions of employees. They have to deliver on the brand promise. But to do that, they need to be engaged – and the brand promise needs to “belong” to them. An exceptional brand is developed through the consistent, long-term actions of employees. Great marketing, ads, social media and PR campaigns are damaged by a cranky staff member, an employee who doesn’t return calls or e-mails in a timely fashion, or someone in your organization commenting negatively on social media about your product, services or another element.

Engaging your employees as “brand ambassadors” and helping them to deliver on the brand promise is a worthwhile investment for an organization. Making a strategic decision to engage employees in this way happens over time. And you need to be consistent in these efforts.

Here are the steps for creating brand ambassadors.

Step 1 – Survey

Develop an internal (and anonymous) survey to see where engagement currently sits. This will give you a benchmark so that as you move forward, you can identify where you have improved and what still needs work.

Step 2 – Identify Influencers

Identify key employees who are influencers, community builders, outliers and even skeptics and create an employee engagement advisory panel. Don’t just pull in managers and people you know will agree with you. Bring in those who will challenge the status quo – find out what they think and why. Ensure you have a range of employees and that all areas or departments are represented.

Step 3 – The Advisory Panel

Provide the results from the survey – keeping necessary information confidential – to the advisory committee. Work with them to identify the key areas that need attention. Choose one or two areas to work on – don’t try to change everything overnight. Create an engagement plan based on the areas and through a town hall meeting, an all staff meeting or another approach (online meeting, etc.) – share the plans with staff. The advisory board should meet monthly.

Step 4 – Internal Communications

Creating an internal site on your intranet, where employees can ask questions, provide feedback and communicate with each other, is always a good idea. Building your internal community and engaging employees is not a “top down” process.

Step 5 – Measure

Measure your success to ensure you are on track and continually improving. This goes back to the initial survey, as well as defining other key measurement elements and key performance indicators, and setting your goals and objectives. You need to know what you want to achieve in order to measure your progress. And measurement must be a key element of your internal plan.

Step 6 – Celebrate Successes, Address Challenges

Share your wins and challenges with staff. Keep them involved and informed. Meet with the advisory committee once a month, at a minimum. They will be the ones who will help spread the word internally.

Remember: without employee engagement, your brand promise is just words on paper and is of no use to anyone – especially your clients, customers, guests or patients.

 

Raising your profile in an overcrowded marketplace

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on September 11th, 2014

Crowded

We work with quite a few consumer products or services clients. We were writing a proposal the other day for a potential client that offers products and services in an overcrowded and very noisy market sector and it started an interesting conversation in the AHA office. In this day and age of digital and social media, how spread out does an organization need to be in order to reach their target market?

One of the first things we do with clients is review where they stand relative to competitors – both online and in traditional media. It’s important to understand the current landscape before developing a strategy.

Once we know what the playing field looks like, we review the products and services of the client and what they offer potential customers, guests or patients. In a marketplace where many companies are offering similar products and services, it is important to take a bit of a deep dive into this. To not just take what you see at face value, but to look for the unique areas – the “magic” that belongs only to the client – and how that can be packaged and promoted to engage both traditional and online/social media. We also look at how it can be used on their own website.

Many of our business to consumer clients are in specialized fields. That gives us some excellent opportunities to educate and inform their target markets. It also lets us profile the client as an expert in their field. We do this through bylined articles printed in trade and consumer publications and online, with informative and entertaining blog posts, through a series of short videos, through Ask Me Anything (AMA) on Reddit, and by using webinars and a range of other tactics that put forward editorial style, valuable information that is not marketing speak and doesn’t try to “sell” – rather it educates and informs. In a crowded marketplace, consumers want to understand the expertise of an organization and they want to see the benefits of their products and services. Providing this type of information is far more valuable than focusing on a hard sell.

There is a great deal of opportunity to blend a media relations, social networking and direct to consumer approach that, done well, will have a measurable (and strong) impact on driving potential business through the door. Once they are in the door, it’s up to the staff to deliver on the brand promise and take good care of this customer, guest or patient.

Supporting staff in delivering the brand promise will be next week’s blog topic.

Should you use social media during an issue?

Posted by Paul Holman of AHA Creative Strategies on August 29th, 2014

In today’s AHA Fast Take Friday, Ruth talks about the use or non-use of social media during an issue.

Update – reputation management

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on August 27th, 2014

protest angryI wanted to write a quick update on the example I used in my most recent reputation management and issue communication blog post.

According to a Global News report, Centerplate, the company whose CEO Desmond Hague was seen in a video kicking a dog in an elevator, has released a statement. It says that they do not condone animal abuse and are undertaking an internal review. The statement also says that Hague has agreed to undergo counselling for anger management issues and has pledged a significant, personal, multi-year financial commitment to help support the protection and safety of animals.

In theory, what is outlined in the statement are the right things to do. However, I find it interesting that this statement comes out after many of the company’s clients, such as the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Mariners, have made their own statements of concern about this issue.

As I said in my earlier blog post, I don’t know what Centerplate’s strategy is for managing this issue. I don’t know the specifics of why it was decided to respond via statements. My opinion is based on how it is being played out in a public forum.

However, having said that, it is clear that this reactive, hiding behind statements from lawyers and PR people is not working. People are angry, they are calling for Centerplate’s contracts to be cancelled, and are threatening to boycott the food that is sold at stadiums that use Centerplate. It’s time to change up the strategy and get authentic about this.

Is Hague or his PR team reading the tweets and comments on articles about this issue? Centerplate’s website is still up, but the list of clients has been taken down. That’s not transparent.

To me, the Centerplate statement is clearly reactive and having these statements coming from lawyers and PR people is not helping. Not to mention that social media sites have been taken down and the website is being changed, so we can’t find specific information about the clients. They have taken an “information out” approach, instead of finding a way to engage in a dialogue. (It would be a very tough dialogue.)

Hague needs to stand up and visibly get in front of this – and take the heat. In my professional opinion, he needs to do a video where he acknowledges what he did wrong and fully apologize. He needs to do a media tour and go to the breakfast shows or morning news in the cities where Centerplate has clients and talk about his mistake, what he is doing to make it right, and what he is doing to help abused animals. And he needs to do it now. I don’t want to hear “we are doing an internal review and he has pledged money” – I want to know what is being reviewed, how much money he is going to contribute, the names of the animal organizations, and that he realizes that this is unacceptable behaviour.

He needs to do more than send out these statements to media. I want to see a real person who is truly sorry for what they have done and realizes how horrific his actions were. It seems that many other people do too.

It feels like he is hiding behind his legal and PR teams and using statements that he doesn’t have to actually speak about what he did. In my opinion, until he steps forward and shows us that he realizes what he did is wrong and takes full responsibility for what he did, the anger of the stadium food-buying public isn’t going to stop.

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