Things That Make You Go hmmm…

Each month someone from the AHA Crew is given a small budget and sent out to do a random act of kindness. For August, our fabulous PR Coordinator Laurie Hanley was given the job. Below is her blog post. — Ruth Atherley


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHave you ever searched for an empty parking space in your hometown? This is not an easy task in any major city and Halifax is no exception. It’s just brutal. It takes its toll on even the most delightful Pollyanna-type personalities. So when I was given $50 to do a random act of kindness, I ended up choosing to brighten the day for busy drivers who might have felt a little down in their search for a parking spot.

My kids and I went into the bank and got two rolls of loonies. The teller smiled and asked “Laundry day?” “Sort of,” I smiled back. Armed with 50 shiny coins, we set out on foot for Spring Garden Road, where we immediately bumped into my brother-in-law (Halifax is a largish city but also a very small town) who was keen to break in a new pair of sneakers – so he joined us.

We walked and we walked… all over town. It was a gorgeous day – blue sky, hot sun, cool summer breeze. We spent the afternoon looking for our target: an empty parking space just waiting for someone to pull in. And when we would finally find one, we’d sit down on the curb and wait. Sure enough, within minutes, someone would pull in… forwards, backwards, getting the car lodged in there, just right. Then there would be a moment of quiet. A quick cellphone check, some deep breathing, a fumbling for coins. And out of their car they’d step. That’s when I’d call: “Go!” and one of the kids would run up to the meter and pay for their parking. They would give a little wave and say: “Have a wonderful day!”

The reaction to this was amazing. Watching the person’s face as it turned from completely rushed and frustrated into the biggest grin was so worth the wait. “What are you kids up to?” said one smiley man. “Here, buy yourselves some ice cream,” said a woman trying to hand us money – which we, of course, politely declined. “Here…” said a very grateful man as he reached into his shirt pocket. “Oh no, it’s all good! Happy Friday!!” we said. But he kept on coming closer… his hand coming out of his pocket so eagerly… “I have candy! I have four of them here… and lots more in the car.” Is that a Werthers? Well, I wouldn’t want to be rude.

We did this all afternoon. It was the best Friday I’ve had in a long time. We got completely immersed in our random-act-of-kindness bubble. Normally, walking around downtown, I am like everyone else – on a mission. I have a limited amount of time to be somewhere and I don’t notice anything or anyone. But our Random Act of Kindness Day was different. We relaxed, took things in, and connected with people. And believe it or not, we still have so many loonies left. These empty parking spaces are hard to find. So one sunny day this week, we’ll pick a peak time and head back down to finish the job.

People are busier than ever these days. But what I was reminded of on Friday is that underneath the serious business face, there is still a human being. There is genuine good spirit. And we all have a need to give back. People want to connect – it’s just a difficult thing to do when we are rushing around, trying to be in 10 different places at once. But it’s so good to know we can still take the time to make eye contact and smile and make a difference in someone’s day.

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Screen shot 2013-08-13 at 8.15.04 AMI had an interesting conversation last week with someone who is doing quite a bit for his organization in the world of social media. Without giving away too many details, I will discuss his approach and my questions/response to his approach here.

This person works in a high risk, high potential for negative response environment. He is very active in pushing information out via social media and yet when I asked how he manages responses and the potential for negative responses, he laughed and said: “We don’t respond at all – and if they are negative, we just delete them when we are able.”

In our conversation, I asked him what his organization’s objective was in using social media. His response was that it was for providing information to stakeholder groups.

I asked how he identified which stakeholder groups were on which social media sites. His response was that they took the most popular and used those (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram). I asked how he measures success. His response was that he doesn’t measure anything on social media, but measures how many people open his e-newsletter.

I have to admit, it was quite a disjointed conversation. I kept asking about his objectives and how these objectives would form his strategy, and I focused on the importance of measurement. He kept trying to convince me that using social media as a distribution system is a strategy. (For the record, I believe that using social media as a distribution system is a tool – not a strategy.)

There are many social media networking sites that can be of value to you in your communications planning. It’s important that using social media – even if it just means that you are monitoring it so that you know what is being said about your organization – be included in your overall communications strategy. It is only one component of your strategy and your tactical plan.

In our view, the development of a communications strategy needs to start with answering some key questions, including:

  • What is my overall objective? (What do I want my stakeholder group to know, do or think after I have informed, educated and engaged with them?)
  • Who is my target audience/community/stakeholder group?
  • How do they want/expect to receive information from your organization?
  • How interactive and engaged are they?
  • Where do they gather online and on which social networking sites?
  • How often will I communicate with the stakeholder group?
  • What will I do if there are negative responses?
  • What are the risks I am taking by reaching out? (How do I mitigate those risks?)
  • What are the resources (human and financial) that I need?
  • How interactive should my communication outreach be, relevant to specific stakeholder expectations and tools used?
  • How will I measure success? (What are the tools I will use? What are the metrics or baseline I will measure against? How often will I measure and what type of analysis will I use to understand the actions or non-actions of my stakeholder group in response to communication from my organization?)

These questions are just the start of what needs to be defined in order to develop a strategic plan for your communications outreach. And throughout the year, it is crucial that you review the success of your campaigns, initiatives and projects – and refine or even change them if you aren’t getting results.

I don’t know of any communications professional who doesn’t struggle with tight budgets or limited resources. We must be strategic to generate the most valuable results possible for each outreach. In this wired world, it just doesn’t work to simply push information out and hope someone is listening or reading. And, in my experience, pushing information out and not engaging in conversation is an issue or crisis waiting to happen.

It’s crucial to develop a strategy that clearly defines your objectives and outlines how you will measure success.

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I have been a fan of Newark Mayor Cory Booker since a story broke last winter about Mayor Booker hearing about a dog left out in a snowstorm on a very cold night. He went to the house and took the dog. You can read more about that story and several others, where Mayor Booker went what can easily be considered above and beyond the call of duty here.

Mayor Booker is a hands-on kind of guy. He gets out and does what it takes to show his constituents that their issues matter to him. And his communications team does a good job of making sure we see and hear, through traditional media, about the things he does. However, the mayor is active (and quite funny) on Twitter, he is on Instagram and he has a Facebook account where he posts regularly.

He is currently running for the U.S. Senate and he is doing an excellent job of not crossing over and campaigning. He uses his mayor “shares” on social media for that job, and he uses his campaign social media accounts for the upcoming August Senate election.

Cory Booker is authentic and genuine. He connects with his constituents, rather than talk at them. He updates regularly. He responds – especially on Twitter, which seems to be his platform of choice. And he is human about it all. He also takes on the tough questions and the people who are clearly not fans of his. He doesn’t shy away from them. I think that earns him respect, even from those who will never vote for him.

There are very few politicians that I have seen who do such a good job of connecting with people, using social media. Cory Booker uses social media as an important tool, and it works because he sees it as a tool. He is who he is – he doesn’t pretend to be anyone else – and he is an active communicator using many avenues, including social media. He doesn’t hide behind his accounts. He uses them to showcase the work he is doing, to raise issues and concerns, to start dialogue, and to bring his citizens together when tragedy or a crisis strikes.

I realize that I am not the only one who thinks Cory Booker is an example of good social media use – PR News Online has a short piece on What PR pros can learn from Cory Booker.

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Read more some readers of this blog know, I have been dealing with an issue with H&R Block on behalf of a family member. I believe that it is important to acknowledge their efforts when an organization responds to an issue that is put in front of them.

Yesterday, I received a response from H&R Block that they are dealing with this issue. What they have put forward satisfies me for the moment. They have had someone with knowledge about the type of issue that my stepmother is facing (due to their error) look into this and they are taking steps to correct it. I was told that my stepmother should receive the refund that she is entitled to (and has been trying to get for the last year) in two to three months. I appreciate that they have taken this issue seriously and are working to resolve it. I will keep you posted on what happens next.

What I want to focus on in today’s blog post is the communications aspect of my interaction with H&R Block.

As a person with an issue, here is what I did to get results:

  • I was polite. (I said please and thank you; I did not use profanity.)
  • I did not get personal. (My issue is with H&R Block, not with any one person.)
  • I outlined my expectations, and they were not unreasonable.
  • I followed up. (I was the polite squeaky wheel.)
  • I did some research and included people in senior positions in the organization in the e-mail conversation.
  • When I felt that my issue was not receiving the consideration it deserved, I reached out via social media (this blog, Twitter and Facebook) to share my frustration and engaged the support of others.
  • I let the person who was communicating with me know that I appreciated the efforts they told me they are now taking.
  • And I will continue to follow up. This is not over until my stepmother has the refund cheque from the government in her hands.

Good customer service is a key element of operational excellence and brand reputation. In my opinion, customer service should be a priority for every organization. If you drop the ball here, it can turn into something quite costly in the long run.

And if you messed up, say you are sorry. I have dealt with issues and crisis with clients where the legal team and I have had incredibly loud discussions about this. I understand the challenges around “legal” responsibility, but if you made a mistake, acknowledge it, explain why it happened and what you will change so it will never happen again. As human beings, we want to forgive – but we won’t do that unless you apologize and take responsibility. (Which – I have to say – H&R Block has not done yet. I am waiting for them to get to this stage of our discussion.)

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Ruth generated national coverage for Wallace the Llama and the TV show Healing with Animals.

Ruth generated national coverage for Wallace the Llama and the TV show Healing with Animals.

Over coffee each morning, I read newspapers (many of them), I check out my favourite blogs (again many of them) and I check out the blogs that are relevant to clients (also many). I update myself on what is going on in the big picture world, in my world and in the world of each of our clients. Did I mention that I get up early?

I found a somewhat humorous blog on Ragan titled “5 signs you’re not cut out for PR” that was also incredibly accurate, which made it a little frightening. The writer, Scott Signore, nailed it – it’s a good read for anyone thinking they might want to work in this crazy field. And for those of us who love what we do, it reminds us of why we’re here.

So, I took Mr. Signore’s blog post and turned it on its head. Here are “5 signs I was born for PR.”

I am a news hound

It’s 5 a.m. PST, 8 a.m. EST and I am wide-awake, checking out the morning news – looking for opportunities or potential issues for our clients. And this hour, when I get to review the news and send links to my clients, is one of my favourite times of the day.

I see opportunity where others see work

When we identify an opportunity, it’s an “AHA” moment (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). We genuinely get excited about the ability to do more, to add value, to extend or expand the benefit of working with AHA for our clients. We realize it might take more effort on our side, but that’s why our clients rely on us.

Pitching a journalist or blogger and generating coverage makes me do a happy dance

I have to say this extends to writing a speech that resonates with the audience, creating a kickass campaign, developing a communications plan that nails it… seeing coverage that profiles our clients, their products, services or initiatives accurately within the context of an interesting piece of journalism makes me so happy that I dance. And if there’s a photo with it, I add in a twirl.

We’re a team

We work in a collaborative world. We work with journalists to get them what they need. We work with clients to identify their PR objectives and to develop the strategy, tools and tactics – not to mention the content – that engages their stakeholder groups and target markets. We work with other agencies as partners and we work at AHA as a team. I am surrounded by smart, creative, strategic people and I get to collaborate with them on a daily basis. It really doesn’t get much better than that.

We are always looking for ways to do more, to do better, to improve

At AHA, we take the time to look at each campaign, each outreach, each project and ask ourselves – what more can we do? What one additional action could we take that would make it better, that would open that next door, that would increase our client’s return on investment? And we get regular feedback – on proposals, on plans, and on campaigns. We measure, we debrief, we review, we discuss openly and honestly (and respectfully) what we could have done differently, what we learned, and what we need to improve on. Constructive criticism is seen as a positive here at AHA – it might not always be easy to hear, but it’s always worth it.

We get results

At AHA, we work on a range of projects. Some are focused on creating positive change in the world. For some clients, we get to tell their stories in a compelling way; for others, we help improve communication between the organization and key stakeholder groups. Some of the work we do focuses on ensuring that individuals and groups that are experiencing change are given the information they need to manage that process. Other projects involve sharing the benefits of an organization’s products or services with consumers – or as in the case of our travel clients – the reasons to visit a specific destination.

We also get to experience success because a) we generate results, as we’re good at what we do; and b) we measure and report on the effectiveness of the initiative. Results matter and we know that – which is why we’re always measuring, adjusting and reporting back on opportunities or challenges. We like to see success as much as our clients do.

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