Understanding the bias of your audience

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on June 12th, 2017

I have a diverse group of “friends” on Facebook. Some are family, some close friends, and some I have met through work or even through online groups and courses. They don’t see the world from the same perspective or through the same lens – at all. It can be very interesting to watch the differing opinions come out when something serious is going on in the world.

I think that stepping out of my own biases is important. I work hard to understand why people feel the way they do about a topic – and it’s not always easy to do when it appears that their values sit opposite to mine. I might not agree, but I do try to dig in and appreciate where they are coming from. As a global citizen and as a communications professional, I believe it is my obligation to put my personal lens aside so that I can better understand what their motivating factors are, especially for some of the more extreme opinions. It’s not comfortable or easy. (And I admit, there are quite a few ideologies that have recently become emboldened that I will never understand – and that I publicly push back against. But that is a blog post for another time.)

Often, a situation will arise or an incident will happen that has people commenting online – including on my Facebook page, which I take as a little microcosm of the world. And it is surprising how people can interpret what happened differently – usually in a way that supports their own belief system or narrative.

Even something as innocent as a little Facebook meme reminds me of how important it is to take the time to understand how your target market or audience sees the world and will view the information you want to share with them.

The other day, the image we have shared in this post was making the rounds on Facebook. It seemed like a pretty harmless little meme. Within a few days, two individuals on my Facebook page had shared it. Their description of it and the comments that were added by their Facebook friends were very different.

One person’s opinion was that when something happens on Facebook and people send “positive energy” and “love,” it is a useless, empty act that means nothing. Each of the comments on this person’s post agreed with him. It took on quite a mocking tone about how sending “positive energy” helps no one who has just experienced a terrorist attack, the loss of a loved one, or is having a difficult time.

Another Facebook friend shared the same meme – and said that this is exactly what is in her mind when she sees someone sending “positive energy” – that they are letting you know they are thinking about you and that they care. And the comments on her post supported that opinion.

As a communications professional, it is up to me to make sure that when a client is planning some type of announcement, campaign or initiative, we are all fully aware of what the response might be. And – even what might, to some, seem like a positive event or project could receive a critical response from others. You can’t make assumptions that everyone is on the same page or that they will see this (or anything) from the same perspective.

We have to be hyper-aware of any potentially negative or critical response and help our client to: a) understand why there might be this type of response; and b) to get ahead of it and be prepared. It doesn’t mean that we can make it go away, but perhaps there is a way to acknowledge and address the criticism(s) during the planning stage.

We all have biases and we see the world through our own experiences and belief systems. As communicators, we need to step into this and take the time to understand what that really means for our clients.

Your reputation is at risk on social media

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on June 06th, 2017

Social media can ruin your future. It’s that simple. Social media puts your reputation at risk when you post something inappropriate, illegal, immoral, unethical or just plain nasty. A perfect example of this is a small group of Harvard University accepted students – who engaged in a private Facebook chat where they shared sexually explicit memes and messages that also targeted minority groups. They aren’t going to Harvard now. Their admission has been rescinded, according to the Ivy League school. Their futures aren’t so bright now.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened and it won’t be the last. Heck, there are people who were stars in the world of PR and social media who have been taken down because they posted something unacceptable – often thinking they were being funny.

One of the elements of social media that I appreciate – in both my personal and professional life – is how it allows you to see someone for who they truly are. Years ago, before social media (remember that?), people could show one face publicly and be someone else entirely behind closed doors. Not anymore. Social media has erased that boundary – and I think that is a great thing. You see, even if people are trying to showcase themselves in a particular way, if it isn’t authentic to who they really are – at some point – they will slip up, let their guard down, respond to something… and they will get caught. And many of those people should be unmasked for who and what they really are. If there is a theme of ugly beliefs or behaviours that surface, then they deserve what they get.

What about the person who makes a genuine mistake or the one who behaves poorly but learns from it? Social media is unforgiving – what you comment on or post lives on forever. Even when you take it down, it’s likely someone has a copy or screenshot of it. Social media never forgets.

When we work with clients on social media, we tell them that whatever they post on social media should be done with thought, respect and consideration. It’s perfectly reasonable to enter a discussion, dialogue or debate to disagree. But imagine if what you wrote was run across a jumbotron screen or published on the front page of a national newspaper – would you be proud or ashamed? Not just of what you said, but also how you said it and how you engaged with others. Sometimes, we need to be the “grown-up” if a conversation turns nasty or aggressive – to respectfully stand up for what is right or, if appropriate, to disengage.

This isn’t just professional advice; it’s personal advice too. Be careful out there. Your reputation is at risk.

Social media isn’t free, quick or easy – but it is worth it

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on May 10th, 2017

We recently had a potential client come to us for a social media strategy and tactical plan. They also wanted us to implement the plan. As they laid out their goals, targets and key performance indicators (KPIs) for the first six months, we worked to respectfully, but honestly communicate that what they expected was close to impossible – for anyone. (And that anyone who said they could achieve those targets was either misinformed or overselling themselves.) In addition to unrealistic goals, they had an incredibly small budget. They were adamant about their expectations and didn’t want to hear our feedback about the realities of what could be accomplished. It was clear that this client wasn’t a good fit for us, so we respectfully declined this contract.

We love social media and have an in-depth knowledge of the power of social networks and online engagement – but it takes resources, effort and time to build a community, to create engagement, and to facilitate communication and dialogue. We’ve been including social and digital media in our strategic communications plans since we opened our doors over 14 years ago. And we have learned some valuable lessons about what it takes to do social and digital media well.

View social and digital media as a component of your overall communications strategy.
No element is a stand-alone and there will always be overlap. It is crucial that you don’t just repost the same content on all of your networks. Change it up a bit to speak to the specific community or stakeholders, use different images, and stagger the posts from one network to another.

Don’t try to be all things to all people.
Unless you are a large consumer product or service company – limit which networks you use. It is impossible to keep up with multiple social media networks and do it well. Pick your top one, two or three and do those well first – and then see how you can expand out.

Create an editorial calendar.
Have it include all of your communication vehicles, networks and outreach. Identify the events, initiatives and information you will share and work through it like a magazine would work through their editorial lineup for the year, quarter, month and week.

Put enough resources into it to do it right.
Having someone manage your social media from the side of their desk doesn’t work anymore.

Respect the fact that your social media channels are a megaphone to the world.
Copyedit, proofread and fact check what you are saying. It matters.

Give yourself time to build a community and to create engagement.
Don’t expect that you will have thousands of followers the first week you are active on a social network. It doesn’t work quickly – and you want a good community that will engage. That takes time.

Give more than you take.
Engage with others. Comment, retweet and share. If you aren’t actively supporting others, you can’t expect them to support you.

Keep the algorithms of the social network in mind.
On Facebook, your followers might not see a specific post. Comment on your own post or respond to a comment to help bump it up a little. Don’t repeat a post three or four times a day – that becomes irritating to your audience – and don’t try to trick them by changing up one thing like an image. Your audience will see through that. If you want to make sure they have seen your post, find different ways to showcase it that isn’t irritating and repetitive.

Repurpose content.
Spread it out over a range of channels and social networks – plan it out with the editorial calendar.

Social and digital media are important parts of a communications strategy. To do it well, you need time, resources and action.

United’s high cost of NOT doing the right thing

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on April 20th, 2017

Unless you have been living under a rock, you probably know about the challenges that United Airlines has experienced recently. While one incident garnered the most news coverage and criticism on social media, several situations that could have been avoided, had they been handled differently, have come up and have shown the ugly underside of the culture of the organization. And it has cost them dearly – financially (their stock has dropped in the hundreds of millions) and with the long-term damage to their brand.

The biggest incident, with a 69-year-old doctor being physically assaulted and dragged off the plane, didn’t need to happen. In a nutshell, United had overbooked a flight and four passengers who were on the flight were informed that they had been bumped – to accommodate crew who needed to get to the destination airport to get onto another flight for work. Three accommodated and one said he wasn’t going to deplane. Since he refused, they called in the Chicago Department of Aviation Security Officers and they physically assaulted him and dragged him off the flight.

Let’s just replay it in a way that would have had a different outcome.

BEFORE passengers board the flight, the airline offers the most they can for four people to give up their seats. They have the captain request this over the loudspeaker, explaining how important it is. If this doesn’t work, they book their crew on another flight (even if they have to pay for seats on another airline or use a private plane to get them there).

There is some chatter that passengers were already on board before United realized that they needed the four seats. At that point, it should have been too late. Another way for the crew to get to their destination should have been worked out.

At the heart of this, there appears to be a culture of not caring about the customer (in this case, the passenger). Unfortunately, this is something that’s more typical than not these days. Here at AHA, we do a great deal of issues communication. I am always interested when something like the United issue plays out. When it does, I do a deep dive to understand what happened and what could have been done differently. Having said that, we are always cautious about criticizing how communications are handled in these situations, because unless you were in the room when these decisions were made, you really don’t know the whole story.

From a great deal of first-hand experience and extensive research, I can tell you that at the heart of so many issues like the one United is experiencing, there is a moment when someone in the company could have stepped up and done the right thing – but didn’t. And that choice can cost the organization a great deal. Many of these “moments” (that lead to a big issue) just needed an employee (whether in leadership or not) who could have de-escalated the situation rather than fuel it. A staff member could have said: “No, we need to get this right.”

What United needed at that moment was leadership from someone who cared about the passengers and who could see the bigger picture. Someone who could have approached the captain of the flight with the problem and a solution.

A situation, such as the United issue, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. From the hundreds of horror stories about United being shared online, there does appear to be a toxic culture at the airline. I have had personal experience in being treated poorly by United – see three blog posts: one, two and three). Typically what that means is that there is a problem at the senior level – and that permeates an entire organization and its culture. That is a leadership issue and a communications problem. And when you have a nasty culture, eventually it is going to play out in an issue, one way or another.

The fact is, someone on the United team who was in a position of power, influence or even respect, on that plane, could have had stepped forward and done the right thing and worked to defuse the situation instead of calling in the security officers. The key here is that the person who stepped up would have had to have felt empowered to do this. And given the outcome, you have to think that they didn’t.

Think about it. By upping the dollar amount to get someone to give up their seat – for a few thousand dollars – they could have found four people who would have been happy to get off the plane.

I did a TEDx talk a while ago about how doing the right thing is often much less costly. This continues to be true.

And United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, didn’t do the company or its brand any favours when his first statement after the incident didn’t acknowledge the injuries of the passenger or the violent way the situation was handled. In fact, it appeared, from a leaked internal e-mail, that he was applauding how it was handled and was blaming the victim.

United needed some strategic public relations immediately after this incident. It’s just as important to note that while addressing this incident with concern, compassion and showing how it would never happen again was crucial – United is dealing with a much bigger issue in their organizational culture. This isn’t a one-off situation with them. While I expect that every airline has people who have had a bad experience, United is known for its poor customer service and lack of care and consideration for its passengers. This problem goes much deeper with United and, from Munoz’s initial reaction and the internal memo he put out, this attitude comes from the top.

I saw an interesting blog post on Facebook the other day that told a very different story about Alaska Airlines and how they handled a delay situation. It’s worth a read – maybe someone should e-mail the link to Munoz.

What shark cage diving taught me about communication

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on October 06th, 2016

dreamstime_xs_38753909A couple of years ago, I found myself in South Africa meeting with one of our travel clients, Londolozi – a five-star safari lodge. Like most professionals that I know who are fortunate enough to travel for business, I took the opportunity to add some time onto the trip to see some of the beautiful country of South Africa. What an incredible place. I loved every minute of my time there and am looking forward to the day when I can go back.

One of the activities I did was cage diving with great white sharks off the coast of Gansbaai, which is about a two-hour drive from Cape Town. I have been thinking a great deal about that experience and what I learned that day.

Below are the top three communications lessons I learned from cage diving with great whites.

Prepare for What Could Go Wrong

When I decided to go cage diving with great whites, I did a huge amount of research. I read reviews of all of the tour providers, I read travel pieces about the activity, I talked to people who had done it – and one of the things I was looking for was what could go wrong. For this activity, it came down to two things that could spoil the adventure: 1) weather and 2) sea sickness (the threat of a shark bite is handled in the next point – “listen to the experts”).

I had no control over the weather, so I scheduled my cage dive early enough in my trip so that if the weather was bad, I could rebook it. And I did everything possible to keep from getting seasick. Even though I used to live on a boat and on a floating home, have sailed, boated, cruised, swam, waterskied and wake boarded all my life – I didn’t want to be seasick and miss out on this experience. I tool Gravol, I had ginger pieces with me, I had acupuncture bands to wear – and that worked for me. Several people on our boat were too seasick to do more than lay on the deck and groan – and I was so glad I had prepared for the “what could go wrong” scenario. And that’s what we need to think about as communicators – to make sure that we are prepared for what could happen. Putting solutions in place before the fact might seem like a lot of work for something that might never occur, but when it does – it makes a huge difference in managing the situation.

Learn as Much as You Can From the Experts

I did a huge amount of research in choosing the right great white shark cage diving tour operator. I wanted one that respected the environment, the ecosystem and the sharks. I also wanted the people running the tour to be experts on our safety. The boat’s captain gave an overview of how to keep safe both in and out of the water, we were informed about how we would find sharks and how to respect them and the environment – and each crewmember was clearly an expert on dealing with the guests’ fears, concerns and stupidity. No one got to show off, act out or do anything that didn’t comply with the rules.

However, beyond that, on the way out to sea and back in, I sat with several of the crewmembers. I took the opportunity to ask them some questions and the information they shared with me was exceptional. I asked them what I should be looking for, what they thought was the most interesting part of this encounter, and what they wished they could tell everyone who took this tour. Their responses were incredible – personal, inspiring, thoughtful, educational – and a few frightening ones! They had done hundreds, if not thousands, of these trips. They knew many of the sharks by sight and told me about their characteristics, their history and their behaviours. It was clear how much the crew respected and cared about the sharks – and appreciated being able to do this each day. And they seemed excited that I was curious enough to seek them out and ask questions – they kept calling me over to show me things.

As communicators, we often turn to subject matter experts to provide information for news releases, media pitches, statements, content creation and more. Rather than just getting the information you need for whatever you are working on, take a moment and actively listen to what the expert is passionate about, ask what they think people should know, and ask them what they feel is the key element regarding the topic. It is amazing how much more engaging your content will be when you do this.

Think About the Situation From a Different Perspective

Don’t get me wrong… I was incredibly happy that there was a cage in between me and the seven great white sharks we saw that day. But being in the water with those magnificent, elegant and incredibly powerful creatures made me think about the reports of shark attacks – which, for the most part, are quite rare and not often fatal. In fact, in 2015, more people died taking selfies of themselves than by shark attacks.

For the most part, when a shark bites a human being, it has either misidentified the person as food – such as a seal – or it is in investigative mode, trying to figure out what the person is: foe, food or a non-threat. If you view the shark from that perspective, they aren’t the monster human stalkers that they are often made out to be. They aren’t motivated by the need to kill.

As communicators, we often need to reach out during times of transition, organizational change, or in response to an issue or a crisis. It is easy to fall into the trap of seeing critics or those who are pushing back in a negative light. And that can impact the tone and style of what, when and how you communicate. Taking a step back and trying to understand what the barriers are – and why they exist – is an effective step forward in creating authentic, useful communication strategies, tools or tactics. Our role as communicators is to understand the intended audience, community or group, so that we can find the best way to authentically and respectfully communicate with them.

There have been times when it has fallen to me to explain to a client what, how and why people are not embracing change – that they feel disconnected from the leadership and their decisions or that they aren’t happy with decisions being made at an organizational level – and to effectively do that, it is crucial that I understand the perspective of the stakeholder in question. This doesn’t mean that I necessarily agree, but I have to be able to understand why the individual, team, department, company or group feels that way and be able to clearly share that with our client and provide recommendations on how we can bridge the gap. Shifting perspective is an important tool in doing this.

Cage diving with great whites was an incredible experience and one that I will never forget. And it gave me another lesson – more of a life lesson, I think. Do what scares you. I was pretty nervous about getting into the water with the sharks, and even though my hands were shaking and my heart was pounding, I did it anyway. I am so happy that I did. I have taken that lesson forward too and it’s made a huge difference in how l live my life.

Communications lessons from the Gilmore Girls

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on September 22nd, 2016

dreamstime_xs_35528466Four new 90-minute Gilmore Girls episodes are set to air on Netflix late in November 2016. I hadn’t seen the original series and after seeing the excitement for the release of this Gilmore Girls revival, I thought I would check it out. And while watching Seasons 1 through 7 over a couple of weeks, I realized that there are some communications lessons worth sharing, hidden in the episodes.

We’re going to assume that you have a working knowledge of the characters so as to not make this post too long with the explanations of who is who.

The top three communications lessons are:

Your critics aren’t the “enemy” – they believe they are doing something good (and if you can get past the conflict of it, you might learn something).

In almost every episode, Lorelai’s society-minded mother, Emily Gilmore, has something critical (and usually nasty) to say about how her daughter lives her life. Now, Emily is an elitist, autocratic snob whose ideas are, in my opinion, outdated, backwards and have no place in Lorelai’s world. However, she operates from a center of good (in her mind), where she truly cares for her daughter and her granddaughter and wants what is best for them.

Almost every communications professional has faced critics on a campaign, project or initiative. And sometimes it can be incredibly frustrating, especially when the criticisms appear to be uninformed or lacking context or knowledge about the subject matter or are self-serving, rather than useful. Taking a step back and looking at the critics and their motivation is an important thing to do. Understanding that they feel that they are doing something good, something important – puts the criticisms or conflict in perspective. It opens a discussion rather than an argument. And, in the show, when Lorelai steps back and realizes that her mother actually means well, she has a different response, which creates a more positive outcome. It doesn’t mean you need to agree or acquiesce, but understanding the motivation is an important tool.

Listen to that little voice in your head, your heart or your stomach – and act on it.

Throughout the entire Gilmore Girls series, we watch Luke and Lorelai pine for each other. During this time, they both have serious relationships with others. In fact, they both marry other people. And they date, they break up, and we all root for them to get back together. And they seem to, at the end of Season 7 (the final season of the initial series). Both of them have that little voice telling them something about who they are meant to be with, but they ignore it, disagree with it or silence it. And they spend years being unhappy, confused and lonely as a result.

I think, as communicators, we need to realize that the little voice we hear is important. There is a reason we chose this profession – we understand that clear, understandable communication takes effort. It also takes empathy, sympathy, knowledge and understanding of the audience or stakeholder groups. We spend our days immersed in this. Sometimes, before we consciously realize something, our instinct tries to tell us this. It’s important to listen when it does. Ask yourself – why am I feeling uncomfortable about this? What is my concern here? Is there something here that doesn’t feel right? Listen to that little voice that is trying to tell you something – more often than not, it knows something you haven’t realized yet.

Money can’t fix everything.

I happen to be a fan of the actor Matt Czuchry who plays Logan Huntzberger, the trust fund kid and boyfriend to Rory Gilmore in several of the later seasons. In the show, Logan buys his way out of most problems, until he no longer can. In the final season, after losing most of his trust fund and millions of dollars of his father’s, Logan is forced to move to San Francisco for a job (granted, he is still a child of privilege, but his days of doing whatever he wants are over).

In the world of communication, if you are dealing with an issue or a crisis, having a big budget isn’t always a solution. Don’t get me wrong… having enough money to do your job well is always a good thing, but the fact is – money can’t fix everything. If there is a situation or incident where someone in the organization has done something immoral, unethical or illegal, if a majority of the community is opposing something you did, are doing or want to do – you need some elements that money just can’t buy. You need transparency, authenticity and a commitment to working through the issues by opening a dialogue, not by steamrolling through it and pushing other opinions and perspectives down.

And one small bonus lesson from the Gilmore Girls that I think most communicators will agree with – Lorelai Gilmore thinks coffee makes everything better. It makes the tough times easier to deal with, the good times better, and it’s a drink for all hours – not just breakfast. Here at the AHA office, we tend to agree with her. Coffee, coffee, coffee!!!!

5 reasons for Pokémon Go’s success

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on September 19th, 2016

Our associate, Los Angeles-based communications professional Gabrielle Boyd has written a guest post for the AHA blog on the overwhelming success of Pokémon Go.

 

dreamstime_xs_74773726As a public relations professional, I was simultaneously astounded and envious by the success of the Pokémon Go launch. You couldn’t turn on any radio station, television news or even go on Facebook or Twitter without hearing some story about Pokémon Go. Hate it or love it, everyone was talking about it and aware of it – which is the goal of most brands. And almost two months after the game’s release, it is still making headlines! Here I am being envious again…

Here are five reasons why I believe Pokémon Go grabbed the attention of people worldwide:

Nostalgia

As we have seen with recent trends, there’s a yearning for nostalgia amongst many of today’s consumers. For example, many long-cancelled television shows have been rebooted in a remake of the series (new X Files, 24: Live Another Day, Arrested Development, Fuller House and Gilmore Girls). We are seeing unofficial national holidays arising from popular movies (for example, last year’s Back to the Future day). It reminds us of a time when things were simpler – especially in this post 9/11 world, where we worry about our safety and security. Pokémon Go capitalized on this, where fans of the original Pokémon card games can now relive great times by playing this new game.

Using the latest trends and technologies

Pokémon Go was at the forefront of the augmented reality trend and was one of the first times that it found a way into mainstream culture. This hooked a younger audience that didn’t have the nostalgia factor, using cool and trendy new technology. The younger demographic loved seeing and catching Pikachu in their living rooms, down their street and on their block.

Great user experience

Unlike many mobile games, there are no frustrating pop-up ads during Pokémon Go, which makes for an amazing user or player experience. This seamless playing experience resulted in people becoming hooked on the game quickly. And because they’re happy with the game, players would be even more likely to spend a few dollars at the Pokémon Go shop, which extends the experience.

Strategy

Pokémon Go may appear to be an easy concept – catch them all! – but the more you play, the more you learn strategic ways to improve your game. As the game is so complex, it hooks their players for longer as they find ways to get even better – such as making sure you evolve your Pokémon that have the highest CP (Combat Power), as the CP level carries on to the evolved Pokémon. And the higher the CP, the better you are in Pokémon gym battles. There is an element of challenge here that appeals to players.

Fun!

Maybe, most importantly, Pokémon Go is fun. I believe this is one of the biggest reasons for its global PR domination – people just can’t stop playing and talking about it. And the media can’t stop covering it!

When you think about the success of Pokémon Go, are there ways that you can help your brand appeal to your target consumer? Not everyone has the opportunity to reach as far as Pokémon Go has, but what are the elements of their success that you can translate to your brand?

Social media and the public sector

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on September 15th, 2016

community engagement, social mediaRecently, I started The AHA 100 Cups of Coffee Campaign. The intent of this initiative is for me to get out and connect with 100 people – to introduce myself, catch up and have a conversation. It’s not just about networking and business development, although that has certainly been a positive byproduct. It is about making sure that we, as AHA, are engaged with what is going on in the world, what people are thinking and doing, and what they are passionate about and committed to achieving. It has been incredibly interesting and inspiring.

Not surprisingly, some of the people with whom I have met are communications professionals. Many of them work in the public sector – and several work for municipalities (cities, towns, regional districts) in British Columbia and in Ontario. The AHA team has worked with quite a few municipalities, providing a range of services from messaging development, stakeholder communications, social media, communications planning and implementation, and issues and crisis communication.

I have to admit, I love working with local government. In my experience, the people who choose to work in this area have a passion for their communities and they are quick-thinking, smart and empathetic individuals who care about the work they do and its impact on the people of their town, city or regional district. They get to work early, rarely take a lunch, and are there well after the sun has set. They are dedicated – and they usually have a pretty good sense of humour. The work is interesting and thought-provoking.

Communication that involves diverse stakeholder groups demands that we keep ahead of the curve on new tools and technologies that we can use to connect with the communities. It is crucial that we understand the key elements of any initiative – what the barriers or resistance might be, what people really think, what the fears and concerns are, and the best way to inform, educate and engage. And, I have to say, when you have felt the thrill of having a large group of people respond, participate or even just acknowledge that they were provided with relevant, timely information that is useful to them in making a decision, or that helped them understand why something is being done or not being done – it’s incredibly rewarding.

One of the topics that has come up several times when meeting with senior local government communicators is the challenge of social media. Everyone deals with social media these days – both public and private sectors. Those who work in the public sector have a different, and I think more complicated, challenge regarding how they engage using social media.

These days, most organizations – in both the public and private sectors – are monitoring social media for mentions. The challenge comes from a) understanding what conversations and discussions on social media are relevant and useful; b) how to best make use of the knowledge gleaned from online monitoring; and c) what to do when comments or discussions are negative, hostile or aggressive. And c) isn’t something that can or should be taken lightly. While criticism and concerns from stakeholders should be viewed as an opportunity to better understand how a program, initiative or project is being perceived – not everything that is shared online is constructive or accurate. Sometimes people are just blowing off steam or, in some cases, shooting off their mouths without any evidence-based stats or facts to back them up. Opinions – whether informed or not – are a dime a dozen online. Unfortunately, the ease of putting something up on social media can mean that there are inaccuracies, mistakes and misinformation being shared.

A communications professional in local government has to make the call (likely several times a day) as to how to deal with a range of information being shared on social media. It could take up their entire workday and go into the night if they responded to everything. And yet, by the very nature of who they are as a professional, there is always the need to respond; to explain the details of a situation or decision; to provide news, stats and facts; and to inform, educate and update. In addition, they have to balance this within a complex world that includes the community (residents, businesses, etc.), elected officials (mayors, councillors, etc.), senior bureaucrats (city managers, chief administrative officers), board members and, of course, media. Each of these may have their own goals, objectives or agendas, relative to the situation. It’s quite a balancing act for a communicator.

One of the things we have done with several clients is to build a social media response plan that includes criteria that identifies the key projects, initiatives and campaigns that are expected to generate interest from the community, as well as outlines each of the stakeholder groups and their expectations, concerns and needs. This plan is a useful resource that helps the communications team to have key messages outlined, identifies the priority for response, and provides a road map that helps to make the sharing of information via social media both effective and efficient.

Traditional media, citizen journalists, advocacy and community groups, and involved stakeholders all rely on social media to engage with themselves, with each other and with local government. Social media has given those of us who work in the world of communications an exceptional opportunity that is wrapped up in a very complicated package that is delivered 24/7 on social networks. It is an exhaustingly exciting time to do the work that we do.

Why structure is important in strategic communications

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on September 08th, 2016

Della Smith, my friend/colleague/mentor, is running a great blog series called Dining with Della. Each week, she profiles someone and asks them three key questions about communications – the answers are often about a key moment in the person’s personal or professional life, they are incredibly honest, and there is always an important takeaway. This series is worth reading. The most recent piece had a response that spoke about the importance of value in structure, and it got me thinking about structure and its role in strategic communications. Here at AHA, we do a fair amount of work regarding sensitive subject matter. And while I think structure is important in all of the work that we do, it is exceptionally so when the subject matter is sensitive or when you are dealing with an issue or a crisis.

On several initiatives, we worked with a diverse range of stakeholders – they included family members and/or victims, community groups and advocates, justice system organizations and professionals, local, national and international governments and, of course, the public. It was crucial to create structures – frameworks for how we would communicate with the stakeholder groups. When working on complex issues, there are so many interrelated elements that need to be arranged in a manner that allows for transparent communication to all and yet acknowledges and respects the needs, expectations and culture of the individuals and specific groups. It’s not an easy feat – and it’s almost impossible to do without structure.

While each project is unique, there is an approach that we use that helps to define, not just what needs to be done – but also why, how and when. We typically start off with a statement of purpose, which defines what we want to achieve throughout the process. Our statement of purpose isn’t just about the end results; it focuses on what we want to accomplish as we move through the process.

We clearly – and candidly (but always respectfully) – identify the current situation and review what works, what is no longer useful or effective, and what needs to be changed. This includes undertaking a SWOT analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. As a part of this, we do a PEST analysis, listing out the political, economic, social and technological factors that could affect our work – negatively or positively. We also do a deep dive into each stakeholder group so that we can understand their true needs. We find out who they are – not just within the context of the initiative, but overall. What are they interested in – what do they want to hear from us and why? What don’t they want to hear from us and what does that tell us? Where do they get their information? (Online? In person? Via group communication or in a more individual manner?) What is their communication style? And – especially when the subject matter is sensitive – we (as communications people) also have to think about how the leadership of the organization wants to communicate and how we can bring different elements or philosophies together so that everyone feels respected, valued and understood.

Once we have all of this information, then we are able to develop a strategic communications framework that provides a road map to move forward. This supports the overall strategy and the tactical day-to-day activities.

Developing a structure takes effort, but it provides huge benefit throughout the project.

Great content needs an audience

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on September 01st, 2016

dreamstime_xs_65257404We spend a lot of time talking about, producing and getting client approval on great content here at AHA. We create a range of pieces – from speeches to newsletters, web content, editorial-style articles, infographics, presentations, video series, photo essays, news releases, media pitches, social media content (including Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, LinkedIn and more), blog posts… and so much more. And – before we put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, turn the camera on, or open PowerPoint, Keynote or iMovie… we identify who the targeted audience/community is and work out where the content will be distributed, shared or shown.

We’ve all heard that content is king, but is it really king if it’s not effectively distributed, shared or shown? You can create the best content in the world, but if you don’t share the content in the right place – the place where the targeted individuals, groups or communities are – then it isn’t effective.

For content to work, it has to be seen, be understood and, in most cases, be shared by the influencers, the engagers and the leaders in the target market. By creating content that authentically speaks to them, that resonates and that attracts, and by making sure that it is seen at the right time and in the right medium or network – you are creating the opportunity to ignite the engagement with your stakeholder groups. This is such an important piece of stakeholder engagement and one that is often overlooked when developing a content strategy. It makes a huge difference in the results that you can generate through branded content.

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