Communications

AHA-logoA good relationship between a client and an agency is a two-way street. We have been fortunate at AHA – for the most part, we have had exceptional relationships with our clients. However, that isn’t to say that we haven’t had relationships that just didn’t work – sometimes, it just isn’t a good fit in personality or “chemistry” (that magical ingredient we search for). Other times, the client’s expectations may not have matched with what we knew we could deliver. (I remember one client saying that we needed to get him on the cover of Maclean’s magazine because I had worked there… his story wouldn’t have interested Maclean’s and when I explained this – he just didn’t understand why I couldn’t call up my former colleagues and “get it done.” Needless to say, we had to end our relationship with this client). And, of course, every communications person I know has had a client that is just too “out there” for a productive relationship to exist.

A positive client/agency relationship benefits everyone involved. At AHA, we go the extra mile for our clients, and that’s because of the good relationships we have built together. It’s hard to be motivated to work over a holiday weekend for a client who is unreasonably demanding, has unrealistic expectations, or is just hard to work with; but for the clients you like and respect – you dig in and do what needs to be done.

Below are our five key elements for a positive relationship.

Define goals

When we know what is expected of us, and what our client has committed to deliver, we can focus on strategy, creativity and generating results. We know that every once in a while, a goal post has to move – but that should be the exception, not the rule. Understanding expectations, our roles and our goals makes both the AHA team and our clients happy.

Keep us in the loop and respond to our requests for information

It is crucial that we are kept up-to-date with what’s new and our clients’ marketing initiatives. (That means regular meetings and knowing what is going on at the client office.) When we need information or a response (to a media request for an interview, for example), it is important that we get this as quickly as possible, or at least know the client’s schedule so that we can understand why they aren’t responding.

Communicate regularly

We connect with our clients on a regular basis – a quick coffee, a phone call or an e-mail just to check in – and they do that with us too. At AHA, we send status reports each Monday – so our clients always know what we are working on and where the project budget or monthly retainer stands. If a campaign isn’t going the way we thought it would, we brainstorm internally and reach out to the client to discuss solutions – and they will flag it if they see something that doesn’t look effective as well. If there is an issue, we come together with our clients to discuss it. Regular communication is essential to a good relationship, and it is important that both the agency and client are proactive in this area.

Make us feel like part of the team

Making your agency feel like a seamless part of your team is really important. Department or organizational e-mails, team meetings, including us in company functions… these are all of value. Our clients see AHA as an important part of the team. There is huge benefit to that – we get to know the marketing and communications people (including those managing social media), we understand the internal challenges that you face, and we have an emotional investment in your success. For AHA and our clients, there is no “us” and “them” – it’s all “we” – and our clients will tell you that provides exceptional return-on-investment.

Pay us on time

While this might seem like a no-brainer – not paying your agency on time can create a problem in your relationship. Treat us with respect – and pay us on time. When you don’t pay our invoice on time, trust is lost and that can negatively impact how we work together.

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AHA-logoOn Wednesday, October 29, I will have the privilege of speaking at the Canadian Public Relations Society Vancouver chapter with the Honourable Wally Oppal, Q.C., who was the Commissioner of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry (MWCI).

The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry was an important initiative that was tasked with making findings and recommendations regarding the conduct of police in handling numerous reported cases of missing women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – a controversial, highly sensitive subject with a diverse range of stakeholder groups.

I served, with the support of the AHA team, as director of communications for the MWCI and as editor of Forsaken: The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry Report. This was the 1,400-page, five-volume report for the Commission. I also wrote the executive summary.

I look forward to speaking with the Commissioner. Working on this project is a highlight of my career, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with the MWCI team. These were exceptional professionals dedicated to making improvements in the world. Working on the MWCI was one of the most challenging things I have ever done professionally. It was a 24/7, seven days a week job – that was emotional, demanding and unrelenting.

As a communications person, I knew how crucial the communications role was in this initiative. There was a wide range of stakeholders and it was important that each of these groups was kept informed – even during times when they were being highly and publicly critical of the Commission. I also have to say, I was fortunate that Commissioner Oppal, Senior Legal Counsel Art Vertlieb, Policy Counsel Dr. Melina Buckley, and the Commission team also knew how important it was to inform, update and strategically respond to the stakeholders.

During the presentation, we are going to discuss some of the key communication elements from our work during the Inquiry and the development of the report. They include:

  • Managing controversial, high stakes communication with tight deadlines and diverse stakeholder groups.
  • The importance of planning ahead when it comes to potential issues and controversy.
  • How a communications professional can build a trust relationship with the leadership team during a challenging time.
  • The reality of embargoed information in the age of social media.
  • How to manage a consistent message when communicating with diverse stakeholder groups.

There was certainly much more to the communications aspect of working at the Commission, but these five areas are, I believe, at the foundation of strategic communication outreach.

Another component that will certainly thread through what Commissioner Oppal and I talk about is how we balanced the emotional side of the work we were tasked to do. Everyone who worked at the Commission cared deeply about having recommendations made that would make a positive difference to some of our most vulnerable citizens. This feeling of dedication, passion and commitment to making a difference ran through everything that we did – it wasn’t just a job for any of us. We were all emotionally involved. And we all had a commitment to help make positive change. I know I had to be vigilant that I didn’t let my or anyone else’s emotions influence my actions – it had to be about effectively managing the communications aspects for the Commission, instead of leaping into a discussion about feelings and emotions (positive, negative or defensive).

Commissioner Oppal is a great speaker and I look forward to discussing the communication aspects with him at this event – which will have an informal setting. Since there are two of us speaking, my sense is that it will be a little more interactive than a typical presentation. It will be interesting and, I hope, informative for attendees.

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Crowded

We work with quite a few consumer products or services clients. We were writing a proposal the other day for a potential client that offers products and services in an overcrowded and very noisy market sector and it started an interesting conversation in the AHA office. In this day and age of digital and social media, how spread out does an organization need to be in order to reach their target market?

One of the first things we do with clients is review where they stand relative to competitors – both online and in traditional media. It’s important to understand the current landscape before developing a strategy.

Once we know what the playing field looks like, we review the products and services of the client and what they offer potential customers, guests or patients. In a marketplace where many companies are offering similar products and services, it is important to take a bit of a deep dive into this. To not just take what you see at face value, but to look for the unique areas – the “magic” that belongs only to the client – and how that can be packaged and promoted to engage both traditional and online/social media. We also look at how it can be used on their own website.

Many of our business to consumer clients are in specialized fields. That gives us some excellent opportunities to educate and inform their target markets. It also lets us profile the client as an expert in their field. We do this through bylined articles printed in trade and consumer publications and online, with informative and entertaining blog posts, through a series of short videos, through Ask Me Anything (AMA) on Reddit, and by using webinars and a range of other tactics that put forward editorial style, valuable information that is not marketing speak and doesn’t try to “sell” – rather it educates and informs. In a crowded marketplace, consumers want to understand the expertise of an organization and they want to see the benefits of their products and services. Providing this type of information is far more valuable than focusing on a hard sell.

There is a great deal of opportunity to blend a media relations, social networking and direct to consumer approach that, done well, will have a measurable (and strong) impact on driving potential business through the door. Once they are in the door, it’s up to the staff to deliver on the brand promise and take good care of this customer, guest or patient.

Supporting staff in delivering the brand promise will be next week’s blog topic.

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When discussing public relations or strategic communications, the word “engagement” comes up a lot. It is always interesting to hear what engagement means to a communications professional. It can mean different things to different people, including consultation, education, participation, active discussion and more. Quite often, it is spoken about in hushed tones and feels like the “holy grail” for communications professionals, which it can be – especially in this day and age of online connection through social media…

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