2016

dreamstime_xs_38753909By Ruth Atherley

A 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.

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dreamstime_xs_35528466By Ruth Atherley

Four 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!!!!

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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?

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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.

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