October 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.

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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.

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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.

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