Communications

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 Now, Emily is an elitist, autocratic snob whose ideas are, in my opinion, outdated, backwards and have no place in Lorelai’s world.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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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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dreamstime_xs_65257404We spend a lot of time talking about, producing and getting client approval on great content here at AHA. We create a range of pieces – from speeches to newsletters, web content, editorial-style articles, infographics, presentations, video series, photo essays, news releases, media pitches, social media content (including Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, LinkedIn and more), blog posts… and so much more. And – before we put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, turn the camera on, or open PowerPoint, Keynote or iMovie… we identify who the targeted audience/community is and work out where the content will be distributed, shared or shown.

We’ve all heard that content is king, but is it really king if it’s not effectively distributed, shared or shown? You can create the best content in the world, but if you don’t share the content in the right place – the place where the targeted individuals, groups or communities are – then it isn’t effective.

For content to work, it has to be seen, be understood and, in most cases, be shared by the influencers, the engagers and the leaders in the target market. By creating content that authentically speaks to them, that resonates and that attracts, and by making sure that it is seen at the right time and in the right medium or network – you are creating the opportunity to ignite the engagement with your stakeholder groups. This is such an important piece of stakeholder engagement and one that is often overlooked when developing a content strategy. It makes a huge difference in the results that you can generate through branded content.

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dreamstime_xs_51748984Early 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.

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