Communications

The work we do here at AHA Creative Strategies often seems to come in groups. Right now, we are working with several clients on issues communication and this comes right on the heels of writing quite a few issues and crisis communication plans for other clients.

It’s important to understand that an issue is different from a crisis. An issue is one that keeps you up at night worrying about it – inappropriate behaviour by an employee or senior executive, the unexpected or unexplained removal of a CEO or president, plant closure and employee layoffs, a strike vote by your union, a change in legislation that will affect how your organization does business, etc. Issues are often – but not always – played out in the media (both traditional and social media). An issue threatens your brand, image and organization’s reputation.

A crisis is immediate and there is more at stake than just your reputation (although how you handle a crisis and take care of those affected by it could impact your reputation). A crisis threatens the survival of your organization. It can be a natural disaster (earthquake, flood, tsunami, hurricane) or it can be created by humans – an accident or act of violence at the workplace, mine collapse, hostage situation, airline crash, cruise ship sinking, etc.

In speaking with our clients – from the large multinational organizations that we work with, to our entrepreneurial clients – we always recommend putting an issue and crisis plan in place. When something happens, having a plan that has a complete checklist that provides you with a step-by-step way to move forward is crucial. During an issue or a crisis, your focus must be on managing the situation and ensuring that you are clearly, authentically and transparently communicating with your stakeholder groups – especially those affected.

With clients, we often present a workshop that provides the opportunity to role-play situations specific to their industry or geographic location, so that the key people who would be involved in helping to manage an issue or crisis get a sense of what would be expected of them at that time. It is of huge value to the individuals who participate and it provides them with context so that when we write an issue and crisis communication plan, they can provide input and feedback.

Making sure that your organization – no matter how small – has a plan is important. Thinking about the worst-case scenarios and developing an issue and crisis communication plan is a business asset. You don’t want to find yourself dealing with a big problem and not knowing what your next step should be.

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http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photography-grimy-old-football-closeup-white-image23514167Most people – even those, like me, who don’t follow football – have heard about NFL draft prospect Michael Sam announcing that he is gay. It caused a bit of a stir in the football world, but that seems to have died down quite a bit. Now, apparently some lobbyist is working to have gays banned from the NFL. (Really? Aren’t we so far past this kind of limited and outdated thinking?) I have to admit, I was surprised that this would really matter. But I also have to remember that I live in a region that is not just known for tolerance and acceptance, but also for equality and diversity when it comes to race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and a range of other areas important to human beings as a whole. So I had to put my personal opinions (we’re all human beings – equality is a right and we should celebrate diversity) aside and look at this as if it could be an issue.

Below are the PR lessons that can be learned from Michael Sam’s announcement.

Lesson #1 – Work with a professional who has expertise and experience in the areas of publicity, public relations and/or communication.

Mr. Sam hired a publicist (Howard Bragman), a communications professional with experience in helping high profile individuals to live (and speak) their truth, to represent him. Mr. Bragman has helped several well-known individuals to publicly “come out” and has expertise in this area.

Lesson #2 – Get out ahead of the story. If you don’t tell your story – someone else will.

Mr. Sam – with Mr. Bragman’s assistance – got out ahead of the story; they broke the story on their timeline. They didn’t have to react to the threat of a media outlet or someone else taking this news public before they were ready. They decided to announce it.

Lesson #3 – Timing is everything.

The timing of the announcement was a smart move – after the Super Bowl, before the NFL Scouting Combine, and months before the draft. The media response will have played itself out by the time the draft comes around. I mean, really – how long can they talk about something that has no impact on how good a player Mr. Sam will be?

Lesson #4 – Support the message by creating a human connection, and then get out of your own way.

One of the strategies that Mr. Bragman used was to show Mr. Sam as a human being. He made this a human-interest story and presented Mr. Sam as a well-rounded individual and created understanding and support for him. Mr. Sam made his announcement and then he stopped giving interviews. Brilliant. He stopped being a part of the story after he said what he needed to say. This story has now become about how the NFL is going to deal with sexual orientation diversity in its players.

Lesson #5 – Support clients to live their truth.

One of the key statements that Mr. Bragman made when explaining his strategy was: Release your statement, make your peace and get on with your life. Mr. Bragman has helped several high profile individuals come out and “live their truth” – and that is the most effective (and compelling) lesson we can learn as communicators. Nothing is as engaging as authenticity. The discussion – and maybe even some controversy – can swirl around Mr. Sam but, the fact is, he lives his truth and he had the courage to step into it. Not only do you have to admire him for that, but also respect him.

My sense is that there will be a smart NFL team out there that sees not only the football value of Mr. Sam, but also the PR value. There has been talk about his announcement as being “a distraction” for the team that drafts him. There isn’t a football team out there that hasn’t dealt with controversy before – and I would place odds that there are a dozen teams dealing with actions by players that are far more negative than someone coming out and saying he is gay. It’s 2014 people – step into the real world.

A smart PR move for the team that does draft him would be to step forward and identify themselves as a team that chooses their players based on their athletic ability and what they bring to the team overall. Their positioning should be that his sexual preference is none of their business, and that they stand for equality.

They will gain more fans than they lose by taking this approach. Putting your team out there as standing for equality is not just a good PR move, it’s the right thing to do. The Brooklyn Dodgers stood up and put Jackie Robinson in their lineup to end racial segregation in baseball. What will the drafting of Mr. Sam do for professional sports, as a whole? We have to stop identifying people by their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other elements that chip away at the basic human right of equality that we are all entitled to.

We all need to stand up for equality – especially those of us who have lived a blessed life and not had to face the kind of ugly hatred that comes from ignorance, bigotry and bias directed at us.

Time magazine had a great article on Mr. Sam’s announcement and you can read Mr. Bragman’s post on lessons learned.

As an aside, I have to say that the strategy that Mr. Brag developed for this announcement is as close to flawless as I have ever seen. It may be that he authentically believes that his clients need to live their truth and he is committed to working with them to facilitate that opportunity. We all deserve to live our truth.

There is PR gold for whatever team drafts Mr. Sam. They have the opportunity to raise awareness of the fact that we all deserve to live in a society that treats us as equals and to bring a talented football player onto their team.

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Olympic FlagHere at AHA, we’re big Olympic watchers (well, Paul is and he updates us… a lot). A few days ago, he missed the live coverage of the Opening Ceremony so he watched it later in the day on CBC’s Olympic website. The CBC coverage of the ceremony was hosted by Ron MacLean and Peter Mansbridge. At one point, Paul came into my office and said that something was weird – it seemed like the hosts’ microphones were live during what would have been the commercial breaks on television.

A little bit later he came in and said, “I don’t think they know the mics are hot during the breaks.” That really caught my interest. As communicators, we have all heard the horror stories of people who said things they shouldn’t have when not realizing that the microphones were still on.

I immediately went to see what was happening. With the exception of a couple of mild comments about Russian President Putin not receiving much applause, there wasn’t much to report. But it did get us talking, in the AHA office, about hot mics – along with conversations that happen in public that are overheard – and similar challenges that we face in the world of public relations and corporate communications.

Sure enough, as Paul watched further, at one point Mr. MacLean appeared surprised when he was advised through his earpiece that the mics were live during the breaks. Mr. Mansbridge also sounded a little taken aback by this news and responded – sounding mildly concerned – that he wasn’t sure what he had said during the breaks.

The fact is, they didn’t say anything shocking or negative during the commercial breaks, but they could have and many would have. If not knowing that the mic is on – and carrying all your conversation – can happen to professional broadcasters who have decades of experience, it can happen to you. (We tried to link to this video, but the Opening Ceremony’s full video appears to have been removed from the CBC Olympic site.) Maybe a producer or someone else made a mistake and left the microphones on; maybe they just forgot to tell the hosts. Whatever the reason, it was clear that the hosts didn’t know and that could have been an issue. PR professionals have lots of horror stories about clients not realizing their mic was on and picking up their comments.

On the other side of people hearing things they shouldn’t, there have been times when I have overheard incredibly private or confidential conversations in restaurants, pubs and even on airplanes. These were conversations that should have been kept behind closed doors. I have to admit that I eavesdrop a little when in public, but it isn’t hard to overhear a lot of things that should be kept private, even if you aren’t trying. It’s important to remember to have no expectation of privacy if you are in a public place. And whispering just makes me pay more attention. And I have great hearing, just saying.

We always speak to our clients about this – especially during an issue or crisis. You never know who is beside or behind you when you are in public. In this day and age of smartphones with video cameras, you don’t know if you are being recorded. It pays to be a little paranoid. If something is confidential, it should be fully treated as such. If you tell even one person outside of the core circle of individuals that should/need to know, you are risking a breech of confidentiality and it could cause you grief. We all know the story about author J.K. Rowling’s pseudonym (when she wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling) being disclosed by a friend of her lawyer’s wife.

When we remind clients about microphones at events, we also bring up the fact that if they are being interviewed on camera or on the radio, they should assume that they are being taped, even if they think the interview is over. Sometimes it happens that the microphone is left on and everything you say, even if the journalist has left the room, is being recorded.

It’s important to think about what you are sharing in public and, if you are “mic’d up,” to act like that microphone is on until you get into your car and leave the event or interview. Sometimes, the walls really do have ears.

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photoI left the house very early this morning and I forgot my cell phone and my Internet hotspot. Forgetting both has never happened to me before and I have to admit it threw me into a mini anxiety attack when I realized it. Holy doodle – I have an incredibly important (and exciting) conference call with a client this morning. I have things to do and deadlines to meet. Facebook status updates to make and tweets to Twitter. What will I do without my iPhone – the center of my very existence (and what I use to tell time!)?

Then I realized that I had my laptop. I had my iPad. There are many coffee shops in Vancouver that I can access and use Skype to make my call and get my e-mail. It’s not quite as convenient as the portable and uber-connected office I have set up in my Jeep, but it will do.

We live in a wired world, whether you have embraced all the technology and this new culture or not. There is always a way to connect and communicate. And that means this is what your stakeholders are doing 24/7. They might not be as “wired in” as I am, but many are – and they are out there having public conversations about topics that are relevant to your brand, your products and services, and your organization. How are you participating or contributing to those discussions? Do you know where they are happening? Do you know how often? Do you know who the leaders and influencers are in your stakeholder groups? Have you transparently and authentically joined the conversation?

At the very least, you need to know what is being discussed. These are public conversations – you aren’t eavesdropping and you aren’t violating anyone’s privacy. These are mini focus groups that provide insight into your stakeholders’ perspectives, needs and expectations. It is hugely valuable information and it is sitting right there – out in the open for you.

We often do environmental scans on current stakeholder perceptions, via social media, for clients. We also do scans of media coverage, journalist social media content and comments, and provide a report on what is being said, by whom. We provide an analysis of the perception and information on whether there has been a shift in that perception over a specific time period. It also enables us to identify potential or emerging issues before they become something bigger. For many clients who have this done, it helps to inform how they can more fully engage and participate with their stakeholder groups.

Being disconnected today reminded me how important it is for you to be connected. It’s funny how it works like that.

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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is back in the media again because a recent video has surfaced showing him rambling drunk at a fast-food restaurant.

People around the world know him as the “Crack Mayor.” In fact, when we were recently in South Africa to connect with a client, we were often asked about him. When people heard that we were from Canada, they usually laughed and asked about the “Crack Mayor.” It happened in Johannesburg, Knysna, Cape Town and Swaziland. It even happened on a safari in the African bush from a person who spends 80% of his life at a game lodge many miles away from the closest town, television or newspaper. It’s clear that Mr. Ford has put the eyes of the world on himself – and by association, Toronto and even Canada.

I think we are all aware of the substance and alcohol issues that Mr. Ford appears to be struggling with. It has been reported that while it is dwindling, he does still have support from some of the factions of voters in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). However, this blog post really isn’t about Mr. Ford – it’s about the responsibilities that we, as communicators, face. What would you do if Rob Ford was your client – or if you were the director of communications for the GTA?

The Rob Ford issue has been going on for some time. In spring 2013, Mr. Ford fired his then chief of staff (reportedly because the chief of staff told him to get help), shortly after his press secretary and deputy communications officer quit. Brother (and City Councillor) Doug Ford’s executive assistant was then appointed director of communications. And, as we all know, since then, media have been having a hay day with Mr. Ford, his antics and his headline grabbing, late night comedy monologue inspiring comments.

We have spent some time discussing the challenges being faced by the mayor’s office and how we would handle ongoing issues such as the ones they continue to experience. Everyone at our PR agency is very dedicated to our clients, yet when it comes to a situation like this – the response always comes around to the fact that this appears to be one of those situations where we would have to resign the account.

From an outside perspective (meaning I don’t know what goes on behind closed doors at Toronto City Hall), the issues with Mr. Ford have nothing to do with communication. I can’t see any way a communications person could make the current situation better. And it appears to me that Mr. Ford isn’t listening to anyone’s counsel or advice.

Here at AHA, we have solid issues and crisis communication experience and while we have had our share of challenging clients, we’ve never had to deal with this extreme. Usually, clients come to us (for issues and crisis communication or for proactive PR) because they have something going on that requires our specific expertise and skill set. It’s not always cut and dried or even straightforward. In fact, there have been quite a few times where there have been heated discussions about how to approach communication around an issue and not everyone at the table has immediately agreed with the strategy we put forward. We see it as our job to not only engage in these types of conversations, but to encourage and facilitate them. A good strategy can be outlined, explained and described. It can be laid out in a manner that allows those involved in the decision-making process to understand the rationale and reasoning for the plan. A part of our job is to use critical thinking in reviewing what might work – and to “go at” an idea to make sure it is the right idea at the right time. It’s important to approach communication from different perspectives, opinions and platforms and to work through the good, the bad and the ugly. That’s just a part of the work we do (and it’s not always pretty or easy, but it is effective).

We have asked ourselves what we would do if we had a client who didn’t take our advice and consistently went rogue with the media in the way Mr. Ford has. The answer: The first time it happened, we would have to have a respectful, yet frank, conversation with our client about whether we were a good fit for that organization and that leader. We would ask why they weren’t valuing our expertise and skill set when they were paying for it and had brought us to the table to contribute.

As for working with someone who lies or misleads the media and stakeholders – we’d be out. No amount of strategic communications or PR can help someone who lies or purposely misleads. A person who made a mistake and is truly sorry for their mistake or error – someone who is willing to step up, take responsibility, be accountable and make it right – that is someone that you can help. A person in a leadership role (or any role, for that matter) who has lost their moral compass, who doesn’t see what they are doing as wrong, who finds a way to justify it, or who just doesn’t care – that’s not a communications issue. It’s an ethics and integrity issue and they require help of another kind.

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