Reputation

Happy New YearHappy New Year! From everyone at AHA – we wish you a happy, healthy and prosperous 2015.

In the AHA office, we have been talking a lot about 2015 and what it will bring in the world of communication. It is clear to us that this year will bring PR, branding, social media and marketing together – even more than it already is.

I think we have been fortunate because we have been involved in the online world for so long – close to fifteen years. We recognized where corporate and organizational communication was going a long time ago and have always been working towards a blended approach, with strategic PR and brand leading the strategic communications approach (which should include social media and marketing).

Building relationships with your stakeholders and communities has always been at the heart of public relations. And that is what the world demands now – relationships. Whether it is in branding, marketing, advertising, social media or PR – people want an authentic connection with the brand and the people who work at an organization.

There are no longer two worlds for a CEO or president – their personal life runs into their professional life and vice versa. If an organization only uses social media to push information out – it isn’t going to be effective. If ads are only about what the company wants to say rather than what the consumer wants to hear, they won’t work. (And if they don’t have some kind of social media component – there isn’t much chance of building any kind of connection or community.)

“Integrated” might be the word of the year when it comes to what we do for our clients. We need to blend PR, branding, social media and marketing so that you are speaking with the same voice, messaging and positioning, allowing your target market, stakeholders or community hear from you through a diverse range of platforms in a way that is engaging and interesting to them.

We strongly believe that this is the year for strategic engagement with stakeholders, customers or clients, and your communities. We are excited to help our clients achieve this through a blended approach that produces results and is budget-effective.

This year is going to be great for AHA and for our clients!

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United airplaneIn my last post, I left off where Paul and I had just agreed to staying in Houston (with no help from United for the hotel), going to Seattle the next day, and then getting a connecting flight to Vancouver – because we thought we had no options.

As we were standing there discussing the very limited options (it seems all United flights are oversold, so when something like this happens, there aren’t many choices for replacement flights), the flight crew that was taking over for the next flight was off to the side of us. They were right beside the lineup of very frustrated passengers – all of whom had missed their flights.

We could clearly hear their discussions – and their jokes about all the people with missed flights. One of the pilots asked someone in the line what was going on and the person explained we were all pretty much stranded – he laughed and said: “Hey – you’ve just spent time in the sun in San Juan – you can’t complain.” Yes, yes, we can Mr. Pilot and you are not helping the situation.

I like a good joke (in fact, I happen to be quite hilarious), but his comment fell flat with everyone. The flight crew continued to joke and laugh and the pilot kept on making funnies about how we (the people in the lineup) probably wished we had stayed in San Juan. I actually wished I had been smart enough not to book a flight on United. It really felt like the issues that everyone in the lineup was dealing with were being discounted and disrespected.

I watched an elderly couple – I estimated they were in their mid-to-late 80s – who were clearly distraught and confused. They didn’t know what line to stand in or what could be done to get them home. No one, not one United Airlines employee, stepped forward to help them. I had a brief conversation with them and got them into the line – I sure hope they got home okay that night.

On top of the concerns about getting home when you thought you would – it was clear that many of the people in line were worried about the cost of a hotel and food. Some were students, some were seniors, and others were young families with children. I felt badly for them. United clearly stated that they were not going to provide accommodation or meal vouchers because this issue was caused by weather (just for the record, it was caused by the fact that our airplane didn’t have enough fuel to circle for more than a few minutes). We weren’t thrilled about having to spend money on a hotel, but we are fortunate in that we can afford it. For those on a tight budget, this was clearly a challenge.

As the person behind the United desk did what she had to do to get us on the flight she said was our best option the next morning, she made it clear how difficult we were making it. She then said to us: “You need to go to the customer service desk to reroute your bags on your new flights. I am unable to do it.”

We didn’t understand why she couldn’t reroute our bags. The customer service desk and the gate desk access the same computer program and we had our baggage tags, but she made it clear that we had to go to the service desk – so off we went like good little order takers (which I think might be a Canadian thing). At the customer service desk, we stood in line for another hour and a half to get our bags rerouted.

While we were in the line, we heard from others that they had run across the terminal only to arrive to hear that their seats had been given away (even though the flight hadn’t closed its doors yet). Another said that the boarding gate had been changed without it being posted, so while they might have made it, with the gate being changed – they didn’t… and that they were never going to fly United again.

When we got to the front of the line and told the person at the customer service desk that we had been sent there to reroute our bags – she shook her head and said: “Why would they do that?” And I had to wonder if it had been done because I kept questioning what could be done better in finding us a flight. Maybe we were being punished or maybe the woman at the gate had just had enough of me.

Then she said – why aren’t you going to Seattle tonight? We told her that the other United person at the gate said there were no flights available. She shook her head again and said, “It’s boarding now. Let’s get you a little closer to home tonight – and get you on an earlier flight to Vancouver from Seattle tomorrow morning.” I wanted to kiss this person for doing her job. My question is – why didn’t the other person do hers? The woman that we dealt with at the customer service desk was the only person who worked for United that seemed to care.

This angel of mercy sorted us out and got us our boarding passes, explained that our bags would never make that flight – but they would make our morning flight from Seattle to Vancouver – and wished us well. I really wanted to hug her.

We hurried across the terminal and fortunately made it just as the plane was boarding. And then we sat there for an hour because of a mechanical difficulty. This pilot at least turned on the Pay TV for the entire time that we were delayed and then for the flight to Seattle.

The next morning, we went to the Seattle Airport and as we were checking in (we were now on a United partner – Air Canada), I realized that I had a bottle of salsa from the airport in Puerto Rico in my carry-on. This would never get through security. So I asked the person checking us in if I could check my carry-on bag at no cost – since the reason I had this salsa in my carry-on was because: a) United made us miss our flight and b) they didn’t get our checked bags to us for this flight. She said that she could check my carry-on but that there would be a $25 charge. I explained the reason why I had to check my bag again… and she said there was nothing she could do. Because I had bought this salsa specifically for Paul because he loved it, I ponied up and paid the $25. So the salsa’s cost had now gone up to $40. Ridiculous.

The highlight of this entire journey from San Juan to Vancouver was the quick, efficient and professional approach of the TSA agents in Seattle. They were exceptional in doing their job, not making us feel like cattle, and getting us through security in a timely manner.

The flight from Seattle to Vancouver is pretty quick. When we hit Vancouver, we went to the Air Canada desk to ask about our bags that weren’t on the carousel. The fellow at that desk was incredibly helpful and said to us: “You were right to come to this desk to get some answers as he glanced over at the person at the United desk leaning on his elbows, staring off into space. It took our bags 48 hours to finally be returned to us after we landed in Vancouver.

Between the flight crew not seeming to care that people were worried and upset, the gate staff person who clearly didn’t do her job and who was rude to me, the flight crew laughing about our inconvenience, the $40 salsa, the cost of a hotel and food, our bags being lost for two days (they went to Chicago), and the fact that almost all United Flights are overbooked – which means if you hit a problem with your flight, it’s extremely difficult to find another flight that you can get on – I am done with United.

In my opinion – #UnitedSUCKS.

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I travel quite a bit for business and pleasure, and I have to say my most recent travel on United Airlines (from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Vancouver) was the worst experience I have ever had on an airline. #UnitedSUCKS (the trending hashtag) should be painted on their airplanes…

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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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