January 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.

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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is back in the media again because a recent video has surfaced showing him rambling drunk at a fast-food restaurant.

People around the world know him as the “Crack Mayor.” In fact, when we were recently in South Africa to connect with a client, we were often asked about him. When people heard that we were from Canada, they usually laughed and asked about the “Crack Mayor.” It happened in Johannesburg, Knysna, Cape Town and Swaziland. It even happened on a safari in the African bush from a person who spends 80% of his life at a game lodge many miles away from the closest town, television or newspaper. It’s clear that Mr. Ford has put the eyes of the world on himself – and by association, Toronto and even Canada.

I think we are all aware of the substance and alcohol issues that Mr. Ford appears to be struggling with. It has been reported that while it is dwindling, he does still have support from some of the factions of voters in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). However, this blog post really isn’t about Mr. Ford – it’s about the responsibilities that we, as communicators, face. What would you do if Rob Ford was your client – or if you were the director of communications for the GTA?

The Rob Ford issue has been going on for some time. In spring 2013, Mr. Ford fired his then chief of staff (reportedly because the chief of staff told him to get help), shortly after his press secretary and deputy communications officer quit. Brother (and City Councillor) Doug Ford’s executive assistant was then appointed director of communications. And, as we all know, since then, media have been having a hay day with Mr. Ford, his antics and his headline grabbing, late night comedy monologue inspiring comments.

We have spent some time discussing the challenges being faced by the mayor’s office and how we would handle ongoing issues such as the ones they continue to experience. Everyone at our PR agency is very dedicated to our clients, yet when it comes to a situation like this – the response always comes around to the fact that this appears to be one of those situations where we would have to resign the account.

From an outside perspective (meaning I don’t know what goes on behind closed doors at Toronto City Hall), the issues with Mr. Ford have nothing to do with communication. I can’t see any way a communications person could make the current situation better. And it appears to me that Mr. Ford isn’t listening to anyone’s counsel or advice.

Here at AHA, we have solid issues and crisis communication experience and while we have had our share of challenging clients, we’ve never had to deal with this extreme. Usually, clients come to us (for issues and crisis communication or for proactive PR) because they have something going on that requires our specific expertise and skill set. It’s not always cut and dried or even straightforward. In fact, there have been quite a few times where there have been heated discussions about how to approach communication around an issue and not everyone at the table has immediately agreed with the strategy we put forward. We see it as our job to not only engage in these types of conversations, but to encourage and facilitate them. A good strategy can be outlined, explained and described. It can be laid out in a manner that allows those involved in the decision-making process to understand the rationale and reasoning for the plan. A part of our job is to use critical thinking in reviewing what might work – and to “go at” an idea to make sure it is the right idea at the right time. It’s important to approach communication from different perspectives, opinions and platforms and to work through the good, the bad and the ugly. That’s just a part of the work we do (and it’s not always pretty or easy, but it is effective).

We have asked ourselves what we would do if we had a client who didn’t take our advice and consistently went rogue with the media in the way Mr. Ford has. The answer: The first time it happened, we would have to have a respectful, yet frank, conversation with our client about whether we were a good fit for that organization and that leader. We would ask why they weren’t valuing our expertise and skill set when they were paying for it and had brought us to the table to contribute.

As for working with someone who lies or misleads the media and stakeholders – we’d be out. No amount of strategic communications or PR can help someone who lies or purposely misleads. A person who made a mistake and is truly sorry for their mistake or error – someone who is willing to step up, take responsibility, be accountable and make it right – that is someone that you can help. A person in a leadership role (or any role, for that matter) who has lost their moral compass, who doesn’t see what they are doing as wrong, who finds a way to justify it, or who just doesn’t care – that’s not a communications issue. It’s an ethics and integrity issue and they require help of another kind.

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800px-Carnival_SplendorThere is a direct link between generating results for your organization – whatever that means to you (sales, engagement, response, behaviour change, perception change etc.) – and living your brand promise.

I had an interesting experience over the weekend that so clearly showed the importance of customer service and how it supports PR and the brand promise, that I want to tell you about it. We are cruisers. While we might not meet the stereotype of a cruiser, we have taken quite a few cruises – in the Mediterranean, to Mexico, in the Caribbean.

Now, it’s pretty clear that the cruise industry has been challenged over recent years – the Costa Concordia tragedy, several ships having issues out at sea, dealing with norovirus, and other serious challenges. The industry is in desperate need of some good PR. Even as I wrote this blog post, there was more negative news coverage of the cruise industry.

This past weekend, I got a call from Chris, our “personal cruise consultant” from Carnival Cruise Lines – a cruise line we have sailed with in the past (the last time was probably five years ago). It was at the end of the day on Friday and I was a little bored, so I took the call. Chris was knowledgeable, engaging and professional and he came across as a nice guy who authentically wanted to help us find a cruise vacation that we would enjoy – at a good price. And his enthusiasm was contagious. I ended up talking to him for 15 minutes or so and he gave me some good options for a Caribbean cruise. We had no plans for any cruise at this point, but he engaged me – and he had some great promotional offers for us as past cruisers. By the time I hung up the phone, I was thinking about taking one of the cruises he had offered.

On the flip side of that, we have also cruised with Norwegian Cruise Lines and several other cruise lines (some five star, some budget, some in the middle). We book ships based on the ports they visit – so we have hopped around a bit between cruise lines.

I am planning a bucket list trip of the British Isles and likely Ireland and Scotland, for my dad and his wife. Once cruising was in my mind, I wondered if maybe Norwegian had some love for me, so I called them. In trying to find the right person to speak to, I was put on hold for 45 minutes. (I have to say, the first person who took the call was very good and tried to help.) I finally gave up. An hour later, I got a call from someone at Norwegian who said they had seen that I was on their website and they asked what could they do to help get me on that cruise I was looking at. They didn’t mention that I had called and had been put into “on hold hell” – with Norwegian audio ads cycling over and over – just that I was on their website. I explained my issue and the person did the surface “I am so sorry for your inconvenience” but they still couldn’t help me access whether I would qualify for the specific promotions I was asking about. It was not their department.

By now, we had received an e-mail from Chris at Carnival outlining what we would receive through the promotion, a link to the ship’s layout and some additional information on the cruise. A nice touch, especially on a cold, gloomy winter day in January when the thought of sun, surf and sand was quite appealing. It tipped us into deciding to take the Carnival cruise.

We booked with Carnival and it was because of the exceptional customer service and follow up by Chris. I know he is there to sell me a cruise, but he made it fun and easy and he hit all of the right notes with me (five amazing ports in a seven-day cruise). It helped that he had some nice promotions to offer. Good for Carnival for giving him the tools he needs to do his job well. I now have a sense of loyalty to him – and Carnival – because he made me feel like we were important past guests and he wanted to do whatever he could to bring us back to the Carnival family.

As for Norwegian, I called them again on Monday because I wanted to know how long it would really take to get someone to talk to me about the British Isles cruise (Carnival doesn’t have a British Isles itinerary). I finally got to the right person at the promotions desk and they told me that since it had been 18 months since I had taken a cruise with them, I was not eligible for any of the specific promotions I was asking about. My slate, so to speak, had been wiped clean. Interesting – it had been much longer than 18 months since I had been on a Carnival cruise, but they wanted me back and were offering some pretty sweet incentives to interest me in returning!

I thanked the person and hung up the phone a little surprised and disappointed. Clearly, Norwegian isn’t trying to woo me back as a past cruiser. Then – two hours later, I got a call AGAIN from another Norwegian “personal cruise representative” trying to get me on a cruise! I explained that I had already talked to someone and I got the “I am so sorry ma’am” talk and then the “that’s a different department” excuse. Not once did Chris from Carnival try to put me off to another department – so good on Carnival for giving their team the ability to be what I need from a cruise specialist. On Tuesday, Norwegian called again – another different “personal cruise representative” wanted to talk to me about my cruise interests. Obviously, no one at Norwegian puts any notes on a person’s file so that they will know who has called or what the feedback has been.

Carnival will need to keep up with delivering on their brand promise on the cruise – and I am interested to see what they will do in this area. However, I can say that in my experience this weekend with my interaction with Carnival, they walked the talk. All of the advertising, marketing or PR in the world won’t work unless the person who your customer, client or stakeholder connects with delivers on your brand promise. Every interaction – from what the president of the organization does when he or she is in line for their daily coffee, to how the customer feels they are being treated through the sales process, to the actual experience you have with what you have purchased or contracted for, has to reflect the brand promise. Chris from Carnival completely delivered on their brand promise – he made it fun, he made it easy, and by living the brand promise, he got us to book a cruise that wasn’t even in our minds before he called. He got results. He re-engaged us with the Carnival brand and he earned my loyalty.

I am now telling people that I think Carnival gets it right – without having been on a ship in about five years; I have re-engaged with their brand and have become an ambassador for them. In fact, I have put it out to several of my friends that they should come on this cruise with us. It’s that straightforward – if your employees bring your brand promise to life with each interaction with a customer or client, you get results.

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dreamstime_xs_25327121Happy New Year. On behalf of the AHA crew, we want to take this opportunity to wish you much happiness and success for 2014.

I had several interactions throughout the holiday season that made me think about how many levels and approaches there are in the world of communication (and in the world!).

I had the good fortune to travel to South Africa in December and, while there, I met several people I will keep in touch with. In our conversations about how to keep in touch, the response was split pretty evenly – half of the people were on social media (especially Facebook and Twitter) and half weren’t.

Some of these people are senior people in organizations; they are the decision makers and influencers. I learned that, for the most part, their preference for staying connected with others is by e-mail, telephone or in-person meetings. But, being curious, I had to ask – where do they get their news and day-to-day information, and how do they stay connected? The answers included reading the newspaper (hard copy), reading the newspaper online, listening to news radio, and watching the morning and/or evening news. It is interesting to note that when I asked about providing their opinions and feedback – or seeing the opinions and feedback in others – there really wasn’t as much interest as I thought there would be. One person responded: “Have you seen some of the comments on news articles? Not only are they uninformed, but they can be nasty, racist and border on bullying. I am not interested in getting into that kind of discussion.”

It’s important to remember that, for a range of reasons, not everyone gets their information or connects on social media. Here at AHA, we spend a fair amount of time in the social media arena – for our clients, for AHA and personally. It’s always good to remind ourselves that not everyone is as engaged on social media as we are. When it comes to planning out a campaign, initiative or project – while social media should always be on the table – it’s also important to identify where the target audience or community gets their news and information. Being clear about this will help you to build an effective plan for where, how and when to reach out with what you want to communicate.

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