How to respond to negative feedback online

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on April 23rd, 2014

RomeWe have clients in a range of sectors including travel and tourism. Online networking sites such as TripAdvisor, Cruise Critic, Yelp and others can provide exceptional opportunities for tourism and hospitality-based businesses – and they can also be incredibly damaging.

I spend time on many of these sites for both personal (I travel a lot) and professional (seeing what people are saying about our clients) reasons. I am always surprised when I speak to someone in the tourism and hospitality world who says they don’t monitor or respond to reviews on these sites. (Our clients are fully engaged in these sites because it’s an important component of their overall brand reputation and PR strategy.)

Not responding is a huge risk – unless you are happy at the bottom of the heap, are the absolute cheapest in the market, and know that you will always get someone prepared to put up with low quality because of price. And today, with so many deals and reductions coming through Groupon and other deal brokers, even that isn’t a good approach. If you don’t respond, at some point negative reviews will decrease your revenue flow.

As someone who travels a great deal in my personal life – I know how much a response to a critical review means to me. It shows me that the hotel, airline, tour operator or restaurant team cares about the experience. And if they acknowledged that they made a mistake – I am good with that. Everyone makes mistakes, the key is to acknowledge it, take responsibility and show how it won’t happen again. It’s not rocket science, people.

If the reviewer has some facts wrong or has a different perspective, I like it when the service provider puts forward their side of the story. I don’t think every reviewer is absolutely right in their criticism. If you read their other reviews – you will often see that they never like anything. A review that is so over-the-top negative, that has been written by a competitor, can be smelled a mile away.

As a professional who works in the tourism and travel industry, I know how important it is to read the reviews, to take the criticism seriously (it provides a real opportunity to improve your business), and to respond to the good and the negative. Saying thank you to those who leave you good reviews is a nice touch and it gives you an opportunity to highlight some of your key offerings within your response.

Responding to a critical review to explain why something happened and, if necessary, to offer to make it right is crucial. Otherwise, that negative review sits there telling the story of your brand. No one should be able to own your brand story except you. Take the time and make the effort. It will provide return on investment for you.

Delivering on your brand promise

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

brandI had an interesting conversation with a client the other day. He called to ask us about Search Engine Optimization (SEO). While we have a foundational knowledge about SEO and integrating SEO elements when developing online content (including websites, blog posts and news releases), our client’s needs went beyond our communications abilities in this area and we referred him to an SEO specialist.

His response: “You are always so responsive and take care of what I need, even if you don’t provide it. You make it easy for me.”

That’s a big compliment to receive. Our commitment to providing exceptional service to our clients is a big part of the AHA brand promise. From the moment we decided to open our doors, we knew that was who we were (and 11 years later, we still are). And it is one of the reasons that we have so many long-term clients and others that regularly use us on a project basis. We have excellent skills, solid expertise and a depth of knowledge that comes from experience and that is very important. But, I believe what tips the scales in our favour are the seemingly small details that are built into our brand promise.

We are client service oriented and are incredibly responsive. We have a strong focus on providing value to clients; we respect their budget and do everything we can to maximize return-on-investment. And while we take our work seriously, we like to have fun in our workplace and with our clients. There are times to be serious and focused and there are also opportunities to enjoy the moment and each other’s company, and we try to do that whenever it is appropriate.

We’re not your average communications agency, which means we’re not for everyone. Our brand promise is that for our clients – for the people and organizations where we are a fit – we’re a part of their team. Their success is as important to us as our success. It matters to us and we’re going to act and respond that way – during successes and challenges.

What’s your brand promise and how do you deliver on it?

Is social media right for your organization?

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on April 03rd, 2014

Social MediaRecently, I have had several conversations with potential clients about social media. Interestingly enough, they all wanted to discuss how to begin to engage in social media as a part of their overarching communications strategy. Each person I spoke with is in a senior position at a reasonably high profile organization. Yet, each one of them told me that they felt lost or overwhelmed (or both) about how social media fits into their overall strategy. And they didn’t know what to do about it.

This is far more common than many people realize. Not everyone understands social media or knows how it should fit (or not fit) into their communications plan. And it can be challenging to voice that, in this day and age, when we assume that everyone is completely immersed and knows a lot about social media. The fact is, many people are still finding their way. And that’s okay; you are not alone.

One of the challenges is that technology continues to change at a rapid pace, and identifying which social media networks are right for your organization or brand takes some effort. Not everyone can keep up with all of the different tools and technologies available – and knowing what to use is only part of the equation.

Below are several high-level questions you should ask yourself before your organization steps into social media.

  • Why would you use social media to engage your stakeholders?
  • Is it right for your stakeholders?
  • Are they participating on specific social networking sites?
  • What is your objective?
  • What do you want to achieve?
  • Who do you want to connect with and why?
  • What are your opportunities and what are your risks?

Once these questions are answered, then you can shift into the more tactical details. Some examples are:

  • What social media platforms are we going to use?
  • What department is charged with developing the content?
  • What is the process if there is an issue or crisis on social media networks?
  • How often will your organization post to each social media platform?
  • How quickly will you respond to social media queries?

We often work with clients to identify their objectives, relative to their overarching marketing and communications strategy, and then help them to build a plan that includes social media. There are times when a client comes to us and we advise them to monitor social media, but not engage – it depends on the organization, their brand, their objectives and the stakeholder groups. Active social media participation isn’t for every organization and that is a key element in defining a strategic approach to communication.

Consider the comments

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

CommentWe do both positive, proactive PR and issues and crisis communication here at AHA. And for these two very different sides of communication, there are many similarities in how we approach them.

One key element for both proactive PR and issues and crisis communication is to pay close attention to the response that is created from the announcement, information or campaign.

Traditional media coverage often provides the opportunity for the community to weigh in, to provide comments online and, sometimes, to vote on a survey. And, of course, Facebook and Twitter provide a great deal of insight into how people are feeling. For an issue or crisis, critical information can be found in the comments.

It is also important to watch when the news being shared is positive. Sometimes, when it comes to comments, no news is good news – but if you have just launched a product or service to consumers and there is no “buzz” about it in the comments or on social media, there should be a concern that no one but you cares.

For both positive news and issues and crisis response, looking at the comments lets you understand the needs and expectations of the public. You may have to wade through a few haters (those people who comment on anything and everything and always have something negative to say), but it’s worth your time. You can get insights that you couldn’t have received in real time before news became more interactive with social media.

Don’t just read the coverage; read the comments. Follow the social media updates and see how they are being shared. There is a wealth of information out there and it’s all available to you.

Earned, owned and paid media

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on March 18th, 2014 all know that media relations and publicity are an important component of public relations. Prior to social media, these areas were at the heart of many campaigns. Getting an unbiased third party (a journalist) to speak positively about your organization, its services or products was crucial. Many, many hours of my PR career have been spent defining a good story pitch, specific to the media outlet we wanted to “earn” coverage in.

Fast forward to today. While media relations and publicity are still important, there are more opportunities where public relations professionals should be involved. These days, the range includes earned (editorial media coverage), paid (advertising and marketing) and owned (channels and content that you produce and share) media.

Earned media is one component of connecting with stakeholder groups and a very important part of most organizations’ communications strategies.

On the paid media side, it’s vital to realize that advertising has changed drastically. Think about some of the ads and marketing campaigns you see now. First of all, quite often the ads have a media relations or publicity component to them that outlines their creativity and shares results. Many ads or marketing campaigns also have an interactive component, asking the target market to participate in some way (create a new flavour of potato chips, for example). Some of the commercials we see on television that are shared on Facebook and other social media networks, tell a story (like a mini-movie) that doesn’t just inform us of the product or service benefits, but also engages our emotions. It isn’t just about informing you of a product anymore – it’s about creating a feeling.

Owned media falls into the area of brand journalism, where you produce content that is shared through your own distribution channels (website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.) that you hope will be shared by your followers. This is a growing area and one we are seeing more and more organizations choosing to focus on. With a solid editorial approach, creating great content means you have to think like a producer. Here you can build strong relationships with your community that are supported by earned and paid media. It has to be about creating engaging content, and can’t been seen as “selling” anyone on anything.

It’s an exciting time to be a communicator when you understand all of the opportunities we have for authentically engaging and connecting with stakeholders.

Brand journalism – organizational storytelling

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on March 10th, 2014

video cameraBrand journalism has been around for a while now. Here at AHA, we’ve been using brand journalism to tell our clients’ stories for several years. As a communications tool, it does seem to be gaining traction. Which is a very good thing.

The Public Relations Society of America listed brand journalism as one of the top 12 trends in PR for 2012 and it was included in sessions in 2011 at SXSW. (I think, like here at AHA, this may have been a little ahead of the curve. We’ve been watching the use of brand journalism for quite some time and it is just starting to emerge as a key communications tool.)

The core of brand journalism is storytelling – and when it comes to marketing, we know that good content is king. Brand journalism is an approach that provides brands with the opportunity to tell their story in the context of their industry, area of specialization or field. It can’t be marketing or advertising content – although it can link to those areas on a website. It has to have an editorial approach, which means providing balanced coverage. This demands a paradigm shift for some who are so used to selling, promoting or marketing that they don’t quite understand how to do this.

In our initial brand journalism planning meetings with clients, we spend a fair amount of time discussing this area and outlining the necessary steps to move into an editorial-focused, brand journalism strategy for content. It’s always exciting to see them “get it” – even more exciting when we review web stats a month or two after they have begun sharing stories through their brand journalism approach and they see the increase in readership, shares and engagement.

I was fortunate that my first career was in journalism. I learned the art and craft of storytelling and journalistic integrity from some of the best journalists in the country. Brand journalism allows an organization to tell its stories in a compelling, engaging and authentic manner. While it might feel like it takes a leap of faith to shift into this type of storytelling, there are so many rewards.

A great example of brand journalism is being done by Alabama Gulf Seafood. Take a look. It will give you some great ideas on how you can use brand journalism to tell your organization’s story.

PR lessons from Michael Sam’s coming out

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on February 26th, 2014 people – even those, like me, who don’t follow football – have heard about NFL draft prospect Michael Sam announcing that he is gay. It caused a bit of a stir in the football world, but that seems to have died down quite a bit. Now, apparently some lobbyist is working to have gays banned from the NFL. (Really? Aren’t we so far past this kind of limited and outdated thinking?) I have to admit, I was surprised that this would really matter. But I also have to remember that I live in a region that is not just known for tolerance and acceptance, but also for equality and diversity when it comes to race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and a range of other areas important to human beings as a whole. So I had to put my personal opinions (we’re all human beings – equality is a right and we should celebrate diversity) aside and look at this as if it could be an issue.

Below are the PR lessons that can be learned from Michael Sam’s announcement.

Lesson #1 – Work with a professional who has expertise and experience in the areas of publicity, public relations and/or communication.

Mr. Sam hired a publicist (Howard Bragman), a communications professional with experience in helping high profile individuals to live (and speak) their truth, to represent him. Mr. Bragman has helped several well-known individuals to publicly “come out” and has expertise in this area.

Lesson #2 – Get out ahead of the story. If you don’t tell your story – someone else will.

Mr. Sam – with Mr. Bragman’s assistance – got out ahead of the story; they broke the story on their timeline. They didn’t have to react to the threat of a media outlet or someone else taking this news public before they were ready. They decided to announce it.

Lesson #3 – Timing is everything.

The timing of the announcement was a smart move – after the Super Bowl, before the NFL Scouting Combine, and months before the draft. The media response will have played itself out by the time the draft comes around. I mean, really – how long can they talk about something that has no impact on how good a player Mr. Sam will be?

Lesson #4 – Support the message by creating a human connection, and then get out of your own way.

One of the strategies that Mr. Bragman used was to show Mr. Sam as a human being. He made this a human-interest story and presented Mr. Sam as a well-rounded individual and created understanding and support for him. Mr. Sam made his announcement and then he stopped giving interviews. Brilliant. He stopped being a part of the story after he said what he needed to say. This story has now become about how the NFL is going to deal with sexual orientation diversity in its players.

Lesson #5 – Support clients to live their truth.

One of the key statements that Mr. Bragman made when explaining his strategy was: Release your statement, make your peace and get on with your life. Mr. Bragman has helped several high profile individuals come out and “live their truth” – and that is the most effective (and compelling) lesson we can learn as communicators. Nothing is as engaging as authenticity. The discussion – and maybe even some controversy – can swirl around Mr. Sam but, the fact is, he lives his truth and he had the courage to step into it. Not only do you have to admire him for that, but also respect him.

My sense is that there will be a smart NFL team out there that sees not only the football value of Mr. Sam, but also the PR value. There has been talk about his announcement as being “a distraction” for the team that drafts him. There isn’t a football team out there that hasn’t dealt with controversy before – and I would place odds that there are a dozen teams dealing with actions by players that are far more negative than someone coming out and saying he is gay. It’s 2014 people – step into the real world.

A smart PR move for the team that does draft him would be to step forward and identify themselves as a team that chooses their players based on their athletic ability and what they bring to the team overall. Their positioning should be that his sexual preference is none of their business, and that they stand for equality.

They will gain more fans than they lose by taking this approach. Putting your team out there as standing for equality is not just a good PR move, it’s the right thing to do. The Brooklyn Dodgers stood up and put Jackie Robinson in their lineup to end racial segregation in baseball. What will the drafting of Mr. Sam do for professional sports, as a whole? We have to stop identifying people by their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other elements that chip away at the basic human right of equality that we are all entitled to.

We all need to stand up for equality – especially those of us who have lived a blessed life and not had to face the kind of ugly hatred that comes from ignorance, bigotry and bias directed at us.

Time magazine had a great article on Mr. Sam’s announcement and you can read Mr. Bragman’s post on lessons learned here.

As an aside, I have to say that the strategy that Mr. Brag developed for this announcement is as close to flawless as I have ever seen. It may be that he authentically believes that his clients need to live their truth and he is committed to working with them to facilitate that opportunity. We all deserve to live our truth.

There is PR gold for whatever team drafts Mr. Sam. They have the opportunity to raise awareness of the fact that we all deserve to live in a society that treats us as equals and to bring a talented football player onto their team.

You never know who is listening…

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

Olympic FlagHere at AHA, we’re big Olympic watchers (well, Paul is and he updates us… a lot). A few days ago, he missed the live coverage of the Opening Ceremony so he watched it later in the day on CBC’s Olympic website. The CBC coverage of the ceremony was hosted by Ron MacLean and Peter Mansbridge. At one point, Paul came into my office and said that something was weird – it seemed like the hosts’ microphones were live during what would have been the commercial breaks on television.

A little bit later he came in and said, “I don’t think they know the mics are hot during the breaks.” That really caught my interest. As communicators, we have all heard the horror stories of people who said things they shouldn’t have when not realizing that the microphones were still on.

I immediately went to see what was happening. With the exception of a couple of mild comments about Russian President Putin not receiving much applause, there wasn’t much to report. But it did get us talking, in the AHA office, about hot mics – along with conversations that happen in public that are overheard – and similar challenges that we face in the world of public relations and corporate communications.

Sure enough, as Paul watched further, at one point Mr. MacLean appeared surprised when he was advised through his earpiece that the mics were live during the breaks. Mr. Mansbridge also sounded a little taken aback by this news and responded – sounding mildly concerned – that he wasn’t sure what he had said during the breaks.

The fact is, they didn’t say anything shocking or negative during the commercial breaks, but they could have and many would have. If not knowing that the mic is on – and carrying all your conversation – can happen to professional broadcasters who have decades of experience, it can happen to you. (We tried to link to this video, but the Opening Ceremony’s full video appears to have been removed from the CBC Olympic site.) Maybe a producer or someone else made a mistake and left the microphones on; maybe they just forgot to tell the hosts. Whatever the reason, it was clear that the hosts didn’t know and that could have been an issue. PR professionals have lots of horror stories about clients not realizing their mic was on and picking up their comments.

On the other side of people hearing things they shouldn’t, there have been times when I have overheard incredibly private or confidential conversations in restaurants, pubs and even on airplanes. These were conversations that should have been kept behind closed doors. I have to admit that I eavesdrop a little when in public, but it isn’t hard to overhear a lot of things that should be kept private, even if you aren’t trying. It’s important to remember to have no expectation of privacy if you are in a public place. And whispering just makes me pay more attention. And I have great hearing, just saying.

We always speak to our clients about this – especially during an issue or crisis. You never know who is beside or behind you when you are in public. In this day and age of smartphones with video cameras, you don’t know if you are being recorded. It pays to be a little paranoid. If something is confidential, it should be fully treated as such. If you tell even one person outside of the core circle of individuals that should/need to know, you are risking a breech of confidentiality and it could cause you grief. We all know the story about author J.K. Rowling’s pseudonym (when she wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling) being disclosed by a friend of her lawyer’s wife.

When we remind clients about microphones at events, we also bring up the fact that if they are being interviewed on camera or on the radio, they should assume that they are being taped, even if they think the interview is over. Sometimes it happens that the microphone is left on and everything you say, even if the journalist has left the room, is being recorded.

It’s important to think about what you are sharing in public and, if you are “mic’d up,” to act like that microphone is on until you get into your car and leave the event or interview. Sometimes, the walls really do have ears.

Your communications plan has to be strategic and realistic

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on February 06th, 2014

strategyAt AHA, we have just completed and submitted a strategic communications plan for a start-up organization client. It was clear that this client has many opportunities to use marketing communication and PR to raise awareness of their service and engage their target market and stakeholder groups. However, it’s a small organization and they are in start-up mode. Their ability to implement had to be seriously taken into consideration in the development of the plan.

This is something that we are aware of with every client – from large global corporations to local companies to government agencies and everyone in between. We have worked with some companies that have large budgets and we have worked with those that are financially challenged. No matter who (or how big) the client organization is, it is crucial to ask: What are their resourcing (human and financial) limitations?

Developing plans with clients is one of our favourite things to do and we’re really good at it. And, I have to admit, there are days when I wish that the magical client, with an unlimited budget and who is ready to take calculated risks, would appear and we could see every great idea that could be brought to life. I am starting to think that client is a bit like the myth of the unicorn, Bigfoot or desserts that don’t make you gain weight. They are nice to dream about, but they really don’t exist.

One of the interesting and exciting challenges that we, as communicators, face is how we can create a great plan that generates measureable results and can be implemented within the budget. Everyone who knows me gets that I love a good challenge and, as a PR agency, we have become really good at digging in and developing effective plans that work within identified resources.

Getting a client to talk about the barriers they face during the plan development stage can be difficult – but it’s important. Does the client have the right people in the right roles with the right skill set or do they need to budget for a contractor or consultant? Is the client capable of doing what needs to be done, in house, to meet the deadlines? If not, something needs to be adjusted to accommodate these issues.

Start-ups are often focused on big ideas; there is excitement and energy and inspiration in the room. Sometimes, they look at what others in their field have done and they want to emulate their initiatives, and that’s not always the best approach. Even taking a best practices approach, it’s important to understand what resources it took to achieve those outcomes and if they authentically fit with your stakeholder group, objectives and goals.

We always provide a measurement component in plans. When presenting the draft plan to the client, that is where I start – measurement and its importance. How the elements in the plan will be measured – including the return-on-investment – always leads back to budget. Putting it all into context is important before you can showcase the tools, tactics and technologies that will be implemented.

It’s much easier to develop an exciting plan when you don’t bring resourcing into it. A blue-sky plan is fun to write; there’s nothing holding you back. A realistic plan takes a lot more research and effort, which is why it works when it is implemented. There are no surprises or detours that take the client away from their strategic road map – they just keep moving forward, measuring the return-on-investment and experiencing success.

Most blue-sky plans don’t get implemented because the resources necessary aren’t available. They are just nice stories on pretty paper.

What would you rather have?

No cell phone – no problem

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on January 28th, 2014

photoI left the house very early this morning and I forgot my cell phone and my Internet hotspot. Forgetting both has never happened to me before and I have to admit it threw me into a mini anxiety attack when I realized it. Holy doodle – I have an incredibly important (and exciting) conference call with a client this morning. I have things to do and deadlines to meet. Facebook status updates to make and tweets to Twitter. What will I do without my iPhone – the center of my very existence (and what I use to tell time!)?

Then I realized that I had my laptop. I had my iPad. There are many coffee shops in Vancouver that I can access and use Skype to make my call and get my e-mail. It’s not quite as convenient as the portable and uber-connected office I have set up in my Jeep, but it will do.

We live in a wired world, whether you have embraced all the technology and this new culture or not. There is always a way to connect and communicate. And that means this is what your stakeholders are doing 24/7. They might not be as “wired in” as I am, but many are – and they are out there having public conversations about topics that are relevant to your brand, your products and services, and your organization. How are you participating or contributing to those discussions? Do you know where they are happening? Do you know how often? Do you know who the leaders and influencers are in your stakeholder groups? Have you transparently and authentically joined the conversation?

At the very least, you need to know what is being discussed. These are public conversations – you aren’t eavesdropping and you aren’t violating anyone’s privacy. These are mini focus groups that provide insight into your stakeholders’ perspectives, needs and expectations. It is hugely valuable information and it is sitting right there – out in the open for you.

We often do environmental scans on current stakeholder perceptions, via social media, for clients. We also do scans of media coverage, journalist social media content and comments, and provide a report on what is being said, by whom. We provide an analysis of the perception and information on whether there has been a shift in that perception over a specific time period. It also enables us to identify potential or emerging issues before they become something bigger. For many clients who have this done, it helps to inform how they can more fully engage and participate with their stakeholder groups.

Being disconnected today reminded me how important it is for you to be connected. It’s funny how it works like that.