Interesting

By Ruth Atherley

I have a diverse group of “friends” on Facebook. Some are family, some close friends, and some I have met through work or even through online groups and courses. They don’t see the world from the same perspective or through the same lens – at all. It can be very interesting to watch the differing opinions come out when something serious is going on in the world.

I think that stepping out of my own biases is important. I work hard to understand why people feel the way they do about a topic – and it’s not always easy to do when it appears that their values sit opposite to mine. I might not agree, but I do try to dig in and appreciate where they are coming from. As a global citizen and as a communications professional, I believe it is my obligation to put my personal lens aside so that I can better understand what their motivating factors are, especially for some of the more extreme opinions. It’s not comfortable or easy. (And I admit, there are quite a few ideologies that have recently become emboldened that I will never understand – and that I publicly push back against. But that is a blog post for another time.)

Often, a situation will arise or an incident will happen that has people commenting online – including on my Facebook page, which I take as a little microcosm of the world. And it is surprising how people can interpret what happened differently – usually in a way that supports their own belief system or narrative.

Even something as innocent as a little Facebook meme reminds me of how important it is to take the time to understand how your target market or audience sees the world and will view the information you want to share with them.

The other day, the image we have shared in this post was making the rounds on Facebook. It seemed like a pretty harmless little meme. Within a few days, two individuals on my Facebook page had shared it. Their description of it and the comments that were added by their Facebook friends were very different.

One person’s opinion was that when something happens on Facebook and people send “positive energy” and “love,” it is a useless, empty act that means nothing. Each of the comments on this person’s post agreed with him. It took on quite a mocking tone about how sending “positive energy” helps no one who has just experienced a terrorist attack, the loss of a loved one, or is having a difficult time.

Another Facebook friend shared the same meme – and said that this is exactly what is in her mind when she sees someone sending “positive energy” – that they are letting you know they are thinking about you and that they care. And the comments on her post supported that opinion.

As a communications professional, it is up to me to make sure that when a client is planning some type of announcement, campaign or initiative, we are all fully aware of what the response might be. And – even what might, to some, seem like a positive event or project could receive a critical response from others. You can’t make assumptions that everyone is on the same page or that they will see this (or anything) from the same perspective.

We have to be hyper-aware of any potentially negative or critical response and help our client to: a) understand why there might be this type of response; and b) to get ahead of it and be prepared. It doesn’t mean that we can make it go away, but perhaps there is a way to acknowledge and address the criticism(s) during the planning stage.

We all have biases and we see the world through our own experiences and belief systems. As communicators, we need to step into this and take the time to understand what that really means for our clients.

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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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dreamstime_xs_54104060I have recently had several conversations with colleagues and clients about the importance and value of a strategic approach. One former colleague, and now friend, who leads the communications efforts for a large multi-national organization was complaining about the lack of strategic thinking from her team, many of whom are mid-20s to late 30s. She was wondering what she could do about it and whether strategic thinking can be taught.

I said that I believed that it could. It takes effort and, wait for it – strategic leadership on her part – but I think that part of the challenge of today’s fast paced, 24/7 connected world is that we don’t provide enough time to develop strategic thinkers in the workplace.

My friend was saying that she sees an excellent work ethic, strong integrity and great intentions from her team, but that their solutions and approaches are tactical in nature – and are often reactive. The conversation was interesting because in the past several months, we have had clients come to us with exactly this type of challenge. We have been asked to review communications plans, campaigns and other initiatives because what they feel is missing at their organization is the team’s ability to see the big picture, recognize opportunities – and risk – and to frame solutions or their approach within the broader organizational strategy.

Supporting people to incorporate strategic thinking is a commitment to your team – and it’s one that should be taken seriously. To begin with, it is important to encourage individuals to think things through and not just react. But, let’s be honest, this is not an easy thing to do these days with fast and furious conversations happening on social media – which is why a social media content, distribution and issues strategy is crucial. Asking for several solutions to a challenge or for an opportunity and helping people to identify the one that offers the best long-term benefit for the organization is important. It’s easy to step in and do it yourself, if you are a strategic thinker… but if you want to help develop this skill with your team, your role should be to support and provide feedback as they work through this process themselves.

Creating a culture where your team is encouraged to ask “why” and “when” questions is also a key element. The “how” usually comes out in the tactics once you have answered “why” and “when.” And when showcasing a solution or idea, having the person presenting explain what underlying strategic goal it serves and what impact it will have on internal and external stakeholders also helps to shift the thinking to the bigger picture.

Strategic thinking is a crucial skill to have in any professional role – especially in communications and, of course, in leadership. Helping your team develop and increase their strategic thinking ability is an excellent investment in the people and in the organization. The benefits of helping your team develop this skill are well worth the time and resources it takes.

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