Media Relations

By Ruth Atherley

Unless you have been living under a rock, you probably know about the challenges that United Airlines has experienced recently. While one incident garnered the most news coverage and criticism on social media, several situations that could have been avoided, had they been handled differently, have come up and have shown the ugly underside of the culture of the organization. And it has cost them dearly – financially (their stock has dropped in the hundreds of millions) and with the long-term damage to their brand.

The biggest incident, with a 69-year-old doctor being physically assaulted and dragged off the plane, didn’t need to happen. In a nutshell, United had overbooked a flight and four passengers who were on the flight were informed that they had been bumped – to accommodate crew who needed to get to the destination airport to get onto another flight for work. Three accommodated and one said he wasn’t going to deplane. Since he refused, they called in the Chicago Department of Aviation Security Officers and they physically assaulted him and dragged him off the flight.

Let’s just replay it in a way that would have had a different outcome.

BEFORE passengers board the flight, the airline offers the most they can for four people to give up their seats. They have the captain request this over the loudspeaker, explaining how important it is. If this doesn’t work, they book their crew on another flight (even if they have to pay for seats on another airline or use a private plane to get them there).

There is some chatter that passengers were already on board before United realized that they needed the four seats. At that point, it should have been too late. Another way for the crew to get to their destination should have been worked out.

At the heart of this, there appears to be a culture of not caring about the customer (in this case, the passenger). Unfortunately, this is something that’s more typical than not these days. Here at AHA, we do a great deal of issues communication. I am always interested when something like the United issue plays out. When it does, I do a deep dive to understand what happened and what could have been done differently. Having said that, we are always cautious about criticizing how communications are handled in these situations, because unless you were in the room when these decisions were made, you really don’t know the whole story.

From a great deal of first-hand experience and extensive research, I can tell you that at the heart of so many issues like the one United is experiencing, there is a moment when someone in the company could have stepped up and done the right thing – but didn’t. And that choice can cost the organization a great deal. Many of these “moments” (that lead to a big issue) just needed an employee (whether in leadership or not) who could have de-escalated the situation rather than fuel it. A staff member could have said: “No, we need to get this right.”

What United needed at that moment was leadership from someone who cared about the passengers and who could see the bigger picture. Someone who could have approached the captain of the flight with the problem and a solution.

A situation, such as the United issue, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. From the hundreds of horror stories about United being shared online, there does appear to be a toxic culture at the airline. I have had personal experience in being treated poorly by United – see three blog posts: one, two and three). Typically what that means is that there is a problem at the senior level – and that permeates an entire organization and its culture. That is a leadership issue and a communications problem. And when you have a nasty culture, eventually it is going to play out in an issue, one way or another.

The fact is, someone on the United team who was in a position of power, influence or even respect, on that plane, could have had stepped forward and done the right thing and worked to defuse the situation instead of calling in the security officers. The key here is that the person who stepped up would have had to have felt empowered to do this. And given the outcome, you have to think that they didn’t.

Think about it. By upping the dollar amount to get someone to give up their seat – for a few thousand dollars – they could have found four people who would have been happy to get off the plane.

I did a TEDx talk a while ago about how doing the right thing is often much less costly. This continues to be true.

And United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, didn’t do the company or its brand any favours when his first statement after the incident didn’t acknowledge the injuries of the passenger or the violent way the situation was handled. In fact, it appeared, from a leaked internal e-mail, that he was applauding how it was handled and was blaming the victim.

United needed some strategic public relations immediately after this incident. It’s just as important to note that while addressing this incident with concern, compassion and showing how it would never happen again was crucial – United is dealing with a much bigger issue in their organizational culture. This isn’t a one-off situation with them. While I expect that every airline has people who have had a bad experience, United is known for its poor customer service and lack of care and consideration for its passengers. This problem goes much deeper with United and, from Munoz’s initial reaction and the internal memo he put out, this attitude comes from the top.

I saw an interesting blog post on Facebook the other day that told a very different story about Alaska Airlines and how they handled a delay situation. It’s worth a read – maybe someone should e-mail the link to Munoz.

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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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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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charlotteempeycrop2We are beyond thrilled to announce that media icon (and all-around awesome human being) Charlotte Empey has agreed to take on the role of AHA’s Toronto Bureau Chief.

AHA partner, Ruth Atherley, and Charlotte have known each other and worked together for many, many years. Their friendship and professional relationship goes back to the days when Charlotte founded and was Editor-in-Chief of Modern Woman magazine and Ruth was a contributing writer for her. Charlotte went on to have senior and leadership roles at many of Canada’s national publications – including as Editor-in-Chief for Metro English Canada (daily) newspapers and Canadian Living magazine.

In this partnership role, Charlotte will work with the AHA team to expand the brand journalism and branded content services in Toronto, Vancouver and across the country.

With shrinking newsrooms, organizations are challenged in getting their stories told via media coverage. Understanding how widespread the changes in traditional media are, as well as the power of social networks, online content and search engine optimization (SEO), the AHA team realized years ago how important it is for brands to tell their own stories.

In order to meet a growing client need in this area, the AHA team has put a strong focus on creating engaging, informative, well-written and professionally-produced branded content and brand journalism campaigns for our clients. This approach allows the brand story to be effectively and authentically shared with organizations’ stakeholders, communities and target markets in a way that engages the audience.

For our purposes, branded content speaks more specifically to projects or individual items to be developed – such as web content, one-off articles, videos or podcasts – and brand journalism is focused on a longer-term campaign that would include weeks, months or even years of creating ongoing, interesting, informative content on a regular basis that engages your target market or stakeholder groups.

Please click to see case studies.

AHA Branded Content/Brand Journalism Services

Our branded content/brand journalism services include, but are not limited to:

  • Writing and editing
  • Identification of compelling story angles relevant to an organization/project
  • Defining the client’s brand story
  • Interviews with subject matter experts, senior team and staff members, board of directors and other individuals, when necessary
  • Research of industry/global trends, identifying key elements relevant to the subject matter
  • Development of brand journalism campaigns
  • Editorial content schedules for ongoing series
  • Editorial content schedules for social media
  • Editorial style writing of articles for websites, blogs, e-newsletters and other online publications
  • Video segments and series (sometimes accompanied by articles)
  • Photos
  • Photo essays
  • Social media content
  • Social media series
  • Promotion of branded content on social networking sites
  • Client bylined articles for submission to traditional media (consumer and trade)
  • Op-ed pieces (bylined to client)

See the news release on this announcement here.

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