AHA

Several conversations with colleagues, mentors and the AHA Creative Strategies team recently inspired me to take on an interesting campaign. We’re calling it The AHA 100 Cups of Coffee Campaign. In a nutshell, I am aiming to meet 100 different individuals for a cup of coffee (or tea – we’re not sticklers for that detail) from July 1, 2016 to July 1, 2017.

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dreamstime_xs_42729484There appears to be an unfortunate trend happening in how we communicate. It’s the “you’re wrong” approach, typically followed by “and I am right.” It is an incredibly ineffective, divisive approach to authentic and engaging communication, yet it is one that is growing – particularly when it comes to public discussion and discourse. The challenge is that once this type of approach becomes “normal” or typical, it bleeds into how we communicate in other ways.

The recent Canadian federal election and the upcoming U.S. presidential election appear to be key contributors to this fast-growing trend – as do many of the challenging social and political situations that we are facing in the world. Recently, on Facebook, I watched a discussion on something that Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, said. And, the fact is, it really wasn’t a discussion – it was a series of smart, educated, caring people stating things like:

  • “Americans are so stupid. Why can’t you see how evil he is?”
  • “I can’t believe that people are dumb enough to be fooled by him.”
  • “The U.S. is full of idiots and fools.”

In my experience, this isn’t the way to get someone to actually listen to you. If someone spoke to me in this way, I don’t think I would feel encouraged to have a respectful dialogue with them. And a respectful dialogue might lead to both of us learning something and opening our minds.

Now, this post isn’t about Trump, the U.S. election or any specific event or situation. It is about understanding a more strategic, respectful and inclusive approach to sharing an opinion, idea or ideology – even when you are passionate and truly believe that you are right. The declarations about Trump and the U.S. could have been about coffee (“I can’t believe you don’t drink coffee in the morning; you are stupid not to see how good it is.”) or anything else.

Many of our clients often have to put forward information that stakeholders don’t want to hear, might not agree with, or that just makes them feel frustrated or angry. In order to do this, it is always crucial to understand what it will feel like for the stakeholder (employee, partner, customer, etc.) to hear this news or information. It is important to listen to why they feel a certain way and what their perspective is – even if you don’t agree with it or understand it.

This is an active listening approach – where you actually listen to what is being said. The how, why and, often, what isn’t being said are important here too. It is why authentic public consultation has become an integral part of any large-scale change by both public and private sector organizations. Respectful, authentic engagement is at the heart of effective communications – and a solid, well-functioning society.

We have worked with countless clients on stakeholder communications, managing public consultation initiatives and organizational change, where engagement was key. Anytime we have experienced real challenges, we could trace a direct line back to the stakeholder group feeling unheard, disrespected or disconnected.

What happens when absolute and insulting statements, like the ones I saw on Facebook, are put forward? It pushes people farther away from finding any common ground, from working to understand the situation from a different perspective, and from engaging so that they can learn more. Unfortunately, it appears that we are losing sight of that, especially in the world of social media.

Author and communications professional Jim Hoggan has written a great book, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up on this subject. I am about one-third of the way through the book and I think it’s worth a read for everyone – not just communications professionals.

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dreamstime_xs_52765848The AHA team recently met with several of our clients and a few prospective clients to plan out communications initiatives. More and more often, digital content and brand storytelling is an important component in how we are helping our clients to tell their stories, moving forward.

In this day and age, an organization cannot rely solely on media relations or publicity to tell their stories. More and more media outlets are shifting to sponsored content, especially in the “softer” news segments (think breakfast TV, talk shows, lifestyle and business sections of publications and, of course, online). They might not announce it, but there are partnership and sponsorship deals happening that result in advertorial-like coverage. The challenge right now is that the media outlets doing this aren’t exactly being transparent with their audiences about the source of the content. As communications professionals, we all know it. We can spot a sponsored segment a mile away, but our clients are not as immersed in the media and may not.

It is harder and harder to get “earned” media coverage (editorial coverage that is pitched to media and is covered because it is a solid news item or tells a good story). That means that organizations must tell their own stories. These days, people get online and go to a search engine to find out information. This is an opportunity for your organization to tell your story and to use search engine optimization (SEO) to help potential clients, customers or other stakeholders find you.

There are now full-time digital content producer/manager/editor/curator positions at many companies. Creating your own content and housing it online is not something that is leading edge or brand new, but it is something that every company needs to be doing.

Rather than lament the decrease in media coverage, smart organizations are seeing this as a huge opportunity to build relationships with stakeholders, to engage with their communities, and to tell their own stories in an interesting, engaging, compelling and often entertaining way. Articles, Q&As, videos, photos, blogs, podcasts, videocasts… there are so many mediums to choose from and, depending on the demographic and content consumption habits of your stakeholder groups and communities, you may choose to use two, three or four different approaches to sharing information.

One of the first things we do with a client who wants to start or increase their digital content production is to look at who they want to connect with and where these individuals and groups are online, and we find out how they consume content, what their online habits are, and what are they interested in. It is a combination of an audit and research approach that provides us with solid information on what communications tools, tactics and mediums to use in order to engage in a fulsome manner. Knowing this allows you to build out your content/editorial schedule, to identify how to measure success, and to set key performance indicators.

Once you have created or produced content, it’s not enough to upload it and hope someone will read or view it; you need to think like a publisher and promote it to your potential audience. And you need to continue to monitor and engage. This is a key element of the plan that we focus on when working with clients. SEO, promotion of your content, identifying and connecting with influencers who can help expand and extend your audience base, and engaging with your readers/viewers in a timely, authentic and relationship-building approach is a long-term commitment that increases in value as you build momentum (and relationships).

It is an exciting time for organizations with a good story to tell. The ability to create great content and build an audience is in our hands. And it can be an incredible asset when done well.

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Social MediaWe have had an exceptional response to our Social Media 101 series (Facebook; Twitter). In fact, I met with a client the other day, a senior executive at a high-profile organization, who told me that he really appreciates the series because it is helping him to better understand social media tools, technology and tactics. He laughingly told me: “I kind of have to fake it a bit when my team talks about social media because I know so little and I don’t want to admit that to them.” And he said that our series is giving him the basics, so now social media is starting to make sense to him – and that means more productive meetings with his staff.

People like this client are exactly why we are producing this series. Many people understand social media, but there are also others who don’t. In our experience, there are many senior executives – CEOs, presidents, executive directors, general managers, vice presidents, directors and senior managers – who may have limited knowledge or understanding of social media in general. Some of these professionals may even work in the marketing or communications departments or divisions and, because of their leadership role, they don’t get as involved in the use of social media as others who handle the day-to-day activities. Because of this, they feel like they don’t know enough about social media and, often, they don’t really want to publicly admit this because they are in senior positions.

It’s a tough spot to be in. These are smart, engaged professionals. It can sometimes be challenging for them to grasp even the basics of social media because they are busy and social media technologies and tools change so rapidly and regularly. This blog series – Social Media 101 – aims to help anyone who is struggling with social media basics to understand the networks and use them a bit better. We know we can’t be everything to everyone, but providing a brief overview with a little bit of context of how social media is being used today seems to be useful to quite a few people – from the feedback we have heard.

With that in mind, after asking a few people who expressed interest in this series, we have a list of the topics that we are going to cover here over the next few months. If there is something you would like to know about that isn’t listed here, please send us a message and let us know.

Upcoming Social Media 101 posts are:

  • LinkedIn (including LinkedIn Pulse)
  • YouTube
  • Google+
  • Pinterest
  • Instagram
  • Snapchat
  • Vine
  • Tumblr
  • Reddit

We will, of course, be updating this list as needed. And, if it continues to be popular, we may go back and revisit it, adding specific ways to use these networks to engage your stakeholder groups and communities.

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Question mark imageWhat’s the purpose? That’s a question that we often ask when working with clients to plan proactive, positive PR campaigns, in delivering issues or crisis communication, and in creating any type of content – articles, online, web or social media copy, video, news releases, speeches, presentations, media pitches, brochures, ads and so much more. And it’s one we ask clients over and over again because it’s easy to get sidetracked with what you can do – and the reason for doing it can take a backseat.

The challenge that we, as communicators, face in today’s world is that we have so much opportunity to connect. There are hundreds (maybe even thousands) of channels and mediums compared to the limited few that existed back in the pre-social media days. There is always going to be a shiny new social media network or channel being promoted, a website being refreshed, or an idea to run a contest in order to build followers, fans or supporters. But before any of these ideas pass beyond the brainstorming session, it’s crucial to ask the question: What’s the purpose?

Clearly defining what you want to achieve is the first step. It allows you to better understand exactly who you want to engage or build a relationship with, identify the channel and/or medium that will work best to reach your stakeholders or target audience, develop effective messaging and positioning, and to set your objectives and campaign goals so that you can measure your success or ascertain what you need to shift or revise, if you aren’t hitting your targets.

Here at AHA, for example, our main purpose in creating content for this blog is to showcase our knowledge, expertise and experience in the areas of strategic communications, such as proactive PR, issues and crisis communication, content creation, speechwriting, brand journalism, social media, media relations, event management, etc. Our secondary purpose is for search engine optimization so that someone searching online for our expertise can find us. When we are writing the blog posts or producing Fast Take Friday video blogs, we always keep our purpose in mind. Our clients tend to come to us through referral, finding us via an online search, or they see us on social media – and want to know more about us. Our website and this blog give them the information they need to drive them to action – to pick up the phone and call us to discuss their needs and find out whether we might be a good fit.

For example, we work with several clients that produce consumer goods. When working with them on publicity, events, social media engagement and content creation, our focus is on engaging potential customers to purchase their products. We use storytelling, brand journalism and great writing and editing to engage potential customers with a call to action to purchase.

Another example of this is when an organization engages directly with potential customers using tools like Facebook contests. They can promote their products in a manner that brings more people to like their Facebook page, they get to provide information about their products in the context of the contest, they help to raise awareness of those products and their company, and it helps them to build relationships with their target market. Contests work for them. But they don’t work for everyone. If we, at AHA, ran a contest – we might get new likes for our Facebook page, but how many of those likes would ever turn into a new client? Not many… The people who may decide to hire us aren’t going to choose us because they might win something. They want an agency that is experienced, skilled and smart. Creating content for this blog helps to showcase this to potential clients.

Asking, “What’s the purpose?” is a big question that can help you to become more effective in your communications efforts. It’s an easy-to-use and important question that should be asked daily.

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