Online Communications

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…

Share this article:
Read more of the latest tools being used by organizations is the social chat – an online dialogue via social media channels. A social chat can happen through a range of social channels including Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Instagram and many others. Any channel with an interactive component can host a social chat, and which tool you use will depend on your objectives and where your stakeholder group or audience gathers.

We have been speaking with several clients about social chats, and our approach is always to take a good look at what we want to achieve with this type of outreach and to identify both the risks and the opportunities.

There have recently been several high profile social chats – and a few that have backfired – including a Twitter chat by the New York City Police Dept that created a huge backlash online.

The NYPD asked Twitter followers to post photos of themselves posing with officers – unfortunately, that’s not what followers posted. This campaign went sideways almost immediately. According to, more than 70,000 people posted negative images. To their credit, the NYPD responded to this by saying that they were engaging in new ways of communicating with the community and that Twitter provided “an open forum for an uncensored exchange” that was “good for our city.”

If you Google “failed social chats” – you can see many examples of the failures.

If you think a social chat is something that would benefit your organization or brand, you need to ask yourself some hard questions that include:

  • Do you have an engaged social media community? You can’t just jump into social media and hold a chat without first building relationships and creating a following and a community. If you only have 50 followers on Twitter, is that enough for an engaging dialogue?
  • What is your relationship with this community – has it been contentious or hostile? Have you authentically built up this relationship so that there will be a dialogue or discussion?
  • Have you reviewed what could be challenging, what the tough questions might be, and how you will respond? Expect tough questions and be ready to provide information in these areas. If you open the door to questions, you need to answer what is being asked – even if the questions are challenging.
  • What is the objective of this initiative? You need to be clear on what you want to achieve. Do you want to share information, get feedback, and engage on certain issues or topics? Why are you doing it? Who else in your industry has done this or are you the first? Understanding what you want to achieve is crucial. While social chats can be an excellent way to connect with your audience, they can also be risky – even for organizations with a good reputation.

Realize that as much as you can try to manage the direction of the conversation – online, you can’t control it. If even a small group of people want to derail the discussion and move it to their own agenda, they may be able to do that. You need to see that as a possibility and put something in place should this happen. You need to be prepared. And you need to have a plan in place about how you will authentically and respectfully engage with both supporters and detractors.

I realize that in this blog post I have been focused quite a bit on the negatives – social chats can be valuable when they are done right and when they are properly planned out. Not only does a social chat build relationships with your community, it also provides insight into the public perception of your brand. If you listen to both the positive and negative, you will have a real time perception of what your customers, clients or community think about your organization or brand.

One of the challenges we have seen is that sometimes a client wants to hold a social chat or engage in some other outreach via social media because they read about another organization that did it. It is important to take a step back and decide to do something like this because it will support your overall business goals – not just because you can. Engaging on social media can provide excellent results, but you need to strategically plan it out and make sure you cover all bases – including what could go wrong.

Share this article:
Read more the last few days, there has been some noise on social media about the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) joining Twitter and Facebook. Their first tweet was: “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet.”  It seems that they have a sense of humour.

Their objective – according to a statement by CIA Director John Brennan – is to “more directly engage the public and provide information on the CIA’s mission, history, and other developments.” In the statement, he also said: “We have important insights to share, and we want to make sure that unclassified information about the agency is more accessible to the American public that we serve, consistent with our national security mission.”

There were certainly some laugh-out-loud responses to the CIA’s first tweet and, in a day and age where we expect transparency from our government agencies, it seems to make sense that they would use social media. And I am sure the CIA has a budget to support this social media outreach – which is important, especially for a high profile, controversial organization such as this. At this point, their Twitter account has more than half a million followers, with Facebook at just about 40,000.

I am interested to see how this plays out. The director stated that they want to “more directly engage the public” – that is a pretty big objective for a spy organization. I think that in theory, it’s great that they are embracing social media. In reality, I think they will spend a great deal of time dealing with critics and controversy and defending their actions and their organization. I wonder what that will achieve for them in the short and longer term.

If they are going to use social media to push out information that can be found in news releases or other public statements, then I think it will be ineffective. Social media is about conversation, dialogue and discussion between people – it shouldn’t be used as a distribution channel that is one way. With half a million Twitter followers – that is a large number of people who will be paying attention to what they communicate.

At AHA, we have several high profile organizations as clients (not the CIA), and we have developed strategic communications plans that include social media. The research and strategy that goes into these plans includes understanding how and when social media could be an asset and when it might be a liability for the organization.

I think it is important to identify the risks of engaging and not engaging – and they both have risks. I spend a great deal of my professional life explaining why organizations should engage – but there are still times when the risk of engaging is higher than not engaging. If, after you have identified the risks of engaging, you find that it’s a long list – and you still believe you need to reach out – it is crucial to be properly resourced. And you need to have an issues communication plan in place. There is no doubt that the CIA will face issues online – their agency is too high profile and too controversial to avoid it. It may be that they use those issues to authentically engage and keep the American public (and the rest of the world) informed. We’ll see. As much as the online world has been around for a long time (heck, AHA has been involved in it for close to 15 years!) – it is still uncharted territory in many ways. It will be interesting to watch how this plays out.

Share this article:
Read more

story visualThe Internet has changed how we absorb information. Shorter text, quick facts, and compelling and creative visuals such as infographics, photos, illustrations and video speak to the new need for relevant, short pieces of information to digest.

In the world of public relations, we have known, for a very long time, that body language is important – especially if you are dealing with an issue or a crisis. It isn’t just what you say that matters, it’s also the visual that goes with it. Studies have shown that 93% of communication is non-verbal and that our brains process images 60,000 times faster than text. As a communicator, I know that using visuals works from proactive, positive messaging to responding to an issue.

Visual storytelling is an important component of strategic communications, no matter what your organization or brand. For the AHA team, this includes sending out a photo with a “good news” media pitch for clients, content on our website, the image included with our blog posts, infographics, photo and video news releases and, of course, our Fast Take Fridays. Our Fast Take Friday videos are great examples of using visuals to engage. From potential clients to the people who hire speakers, viewers get to see me in action.

There is a visual element that supports the message, and rather than reading tips and hints, those interested get to see the person behind the information and it is shared in a more compelling and connected way. People are more drawn to content that either tells the story through visuals or has messaging that is supported by a visual.

We sometimes have to remind clients of the need for good visuals when working with them on their speeches and presentations. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen presentations (mostly PowerPoint) that are so filled with text that it makes your head spin. I am not talking about well-designed infographics or compelling charts or graphs; I am talking about words upon words – just too many words! Usually, it is the same information that the person is going to speak to in their presentation and it’s just on the slide – no visuals or graphics to bring the subject to life.

Images are extremely important for presentations if you want your audience’s attention.

When working with clients on their presentations, here are the goals:

  • Have the audience immediately interested in the content. (An image does that – it draws people in.)
  • Ensure that you aren’t overwhelming them with so much information that they won’t remember anything except that feeling of too much information. (A PowerPoint slide with too many words is overwhelming.)
  • Tell a story that engages, as well as informs. (Images and stories engage. Use examples, human-interest stories and dramatic visuals. The only story those old stock photo shots tell is that the presenter didn’t put enough effort into their presentation.)
  • Provide them with enough information to interest them so that they actively listen to what you have to say. (Reading your slides to them doesn’t count as interesting.)

When you take a step back and see the shift of how people want and expect to be communicated with, you see the popularity of social networking sites such as Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Twitter now encouraging images and video. Vine is a very popular video-sharing site and, of course, the grandparent of video, YouTube, continues to be popular.

Visual storytelling is important. How are you telling your story? Does it include visuals? To be effective, you need to show as well as tell.

Share this article:
Read more