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.
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.
Early in my journalism career, I applied for a section editor position at a national magazine where I worked. The section editor was responsible for following trends, fads and news, identifying the types of articles that would be written for the section, pitching them at the weekly story meetings, and assigning and editing articles. I thought it would be a good step forward in my career.
During the interview for the job, the senior editor asked me what I thought was more important – understanding which topics our readers wanted to see or going with what I thought we should write about. To me, it felt like a bit of a trick question. While this role demanded that the editor have a clear understanding of what was going on in the world relevant to the areas that the section covered, understanding what our readers wanted seemed crucial to the success of the section and for the magazine overall. And I said so. The senior editor smiled, made a note, and we moved on to other areas of responsibility.
It turned out that I didn’t get the job. The editor told me that he thought I would be happier working as a writer rather than an editor and he wanted someone who had a bit more experience than I had, at that point. He also said that out of the 20 or more seasoned, talented, experienced journalism professionals he interviewed for this role, I was the only one who said that understanding what our readers were interested in was a priority. All of the others got it wrong – they thought they knew better about what their readers would like. He told me to hold on to that attitude and that it would take me far. And I took that advice seriously.
Here at AHA, we have recently been taking a deep dive into creating engaging content with several of our clients. And before any content creation (written, audio or visual) is undertaken, we take three important steps to ensure that what we produce will be relevant, engaging, useful and timely.
Understand Your Stakeholder Group, Target Market or Community
The first step is to understand who you want to engage – who do you want to inform, connect with, update or start a conversation with? Defining your audience is crucial and fully understanding what they are interested in; what their perspective is; what – if any – their bias is; and sometimes, depending on the subject matter, understanding their hopes, fears and dreams are all important too.
There are many ways to do this and social media provides us with a communication channel that makes it easy to see how people are feeling about ideas, products, trends and organizations. It’s not always easy to embrace the criticism or negative feedback, but it is always valuable.
Research How They Consume Information
You will use different communications vehicles or social networks, depending on the audience you want to speak with. It is important to identify where your stakeholder group, target market or community spends time online. Is their demographic active on Facebook? Is Twitter their medium? Is YouTube their favourite place to learn more? Where do they go to get information, to be entertained, or to join a discussion or conversation? Discovering how they consume information is also about what mediums they prefer – video, podcast, article, short blog post…
There are times, depending on who it is that you want to engage, when you may need to create more than one type of communications piece to share your information or message. It may be a blog post, a photo essay or a video series. If your stakeholder group is diverse, it is important to share information in different formats so that you will reach as many people as possible.
Identify How to Share Your Content in a Way That Best Meets the Needs of Your Stakeholder Group
Once you understand the needs, demands and expectations of your stakeholder group, target market or community, then it is time to put together the information that you want to share in a way that will be most appealing to your target market. This has to be done in an authentic, respectful manner. You can’t just wrap bad news up in a pretty package and hope that no one will notice. In undertaking this important step, it is crucial to put together an information package that a) reflects the culture or habits of the community you are speaking with; and b) is produced in a way that will encourage consumption of the information.
Making sure that you balance what you want to share with the needs of the people you want to engage is key. We still see some organizations pushing out information that their target market doesn’t find interesting or doesn’t care about. There is no value in creating content if it isn’t going to be of interest or appeal to the people in your target market.
On Tuesday, I saw an announcement that the Toronto Star, the largest daily newspaper in Canada, has laid off 60 people – most from the newsroom/editorial side of the paper. This unexpected mass layoff is devastating news for the individuals involved, for journalism in Canada, and for organizations who use media relations and publicity to raise brand awareness, to tell their story, to humanize their business, and to show how they are a good corporate citizen and member of their community.
Here in the AHA office, we feel terrible for the people who lost their jobs. Not only did I work in the world of journalism for many years, everyone on the AHA team interacts with journalists on a daily basis as a part of our job. These people are our friends and our colleagues and we strongly believe that journalists are a crucial part of a well-functioning society. This is devastating news – and it comes on top of so many layoffs over the past five years. It is clear that something has to change and a journalism 2.0 industry needs to be created – because the old business approach isn’t working.
There are times when I feel like I am a broken record about this topic. With newsrooms and opportunities for media coverage shrinking at a drastic rate, organizations need to step up and tell their own stories through blogs, social media and brand journalism. The opportunity for proactive, positive media coverage is so small these days and many of the best media outlets for this kind of coverage have shifted to a more sponsored-content approach. Here, you pay as a “sponsor” or “partner” to be on their show or included in a promotional article. We used to call them advertorials – now they just appear as editorial coverage, even though they are not produced with the same journalistic integrity as would happen if there wasn’t money involved.
Creating a great website – an online destination for your stakeholders, your customers, clients or other interested parties to learn more about your organization, your culture, your products or services – is an important component of your marketing communications outreach. And having the articles, the videos, the social media content and the blogs produced by professionals is key. Well-written and professionally produced content will engage the people who visit your site, it will entertain and inform, it will help to build a relationship between you and that person, and it will move them to action.
Profiles of the people who come to work at your organization every day, videos of your community’s participation and support, Q&A sessions with your senior team… there are so many opportunities to engage and create positive relationships, to build trust with your customers or clients, and to showcase who you are as a human being, as a good corporate citizen, and as a member of the community. Now you can reach out and ask for feedback and input. You can join conversations and discussions relevant to your industry and your organization and learn what your stakeholders like or don’t like about what you are doing. (And believe me, you can learn a lot about opportunities from actually listening to what people don’t like.)
I have faith that journalism will find its place in this 24/7 wired world, but it won’t be for a few years – maybe even a decade or so. Until then, you had better start telling your own story.
The AHA team has earned a strong reputation for strategic communications surrounding sensitive subject matter. Quite often, this means working with a client during an issue or crisis – but not always. Many organizations deal with sensitive subject matter on a daily basis and taking a “typical” issue or crisis communication approach isn’t necessarily the right way to go when this is the case. The widespread use of social media and a 24/7 news cycle has made this more complex – and often complicated. Understanding this is only the start of being effective and in ensuring that stakeholder groups (including advocacy groups, critics, media, the public, sometimes government, and others) feel that they are being kept informed in an authentic and transparent manner.
The thing is, when sensitive subject matter is involved, so are emotions. And, quite often, it can be easy to forget that. Understanding that stakeholders may react with anger, frustration or distrust should always be front and centre when developing positioning and messages. Taking a moment to put yourself in the shoes of a person who is highly critical or mistrustful or who has felt disenfranchised or ignored is crucial. And it’s not easy to do this when there are deadlines, budgets and demands placed on the organization’s staff.
When working with sensitive subject matter on a daily basis, often staff will use humour or perhaps remove themselves emotionally in order to deal with the situation. That is a pretty human thing to do, but it can be misinterpreted and misunderstood – and that can easily turn into an issue on social media.
Monitoring social media is a key part of any effective communications strategy – and it is even more important when dealing with sensitive subject matter. Understanding what is being said and shared on social media provides insight into how specific stakeholders might be feeling, it can identify where there has been a misunderstanding or miscommunication, and it provides the organization with an opportunity – in a respectful and inclusive manner – to reach out and correct any factual errors, to address any mistakes or missteps, and to participate in the conversation.
One of the key elements of our success in working with clients who deal with sensitive subject matter on a regular basis is to fully understand the topic – and the stakeholder groups. Often, taking the time to truly listen to a critic (a negative response or someone who is mistrustful) provides insight into what needs to be done as a communicator in order to help shift perception. Sometimes that means explaining what was done wrong and how it is going to be made right.
Social media has put additional (and intense) pressure on those who work in areas of sensitive subject matter – especially high profile or controversial initiatives. Being proactive in sharing information, responding respectfully and inclusively to critics or naysayers, and ensuring that you fully understand the perspective of all stakeholders – not just the ones who support or agree with the organization – is crucial. And social media provides the ability to do this in a timely and public manner.
We have worked with many organizations where the senior team had initially been concerned about social media and what could happen. After gaining a deeper understanding of the opportunities as well as the risks of social, we could see a shift in their thinking regarding the value of engaging online.
While effectively managing sensitive subject matter online takes time, effort and resources, it can also be an incredibly valuable communications tool that allows an organization to authentically, transparently and effectively engage with both supportive and critical stakeholders.