Things That Make You Go hmmm…

My dad recently accompanied me on a trip to San Francisco. While I had to do some work while I was there, this city was a bucket list destination for him. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, he had taken a bad fall last year and shattered his femur. Coming on this trip to San Francisco offered some incentive for him during his physiotherapy.

In San Francisco, we got a wheelchair for him, even though he can walk reasonably well with a cane. Given that he is still healing, I didn’t want him over-extending himself as we discovered the delights of the city by the bay. I really didn’t expect to learn anything about PR or communications because my dad had a wheelchair, but I did. (Funny how that happens.)

I took responsibility for pushing the wheelchair. It was something I wanted to do; he’s my dad after all. And we went to a lot of places: Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, took a tour of Alcatraz and a wine tour of Napa Valley, rode on a cable car, went to Union Square, took a tour of the city, took a ferry to Sausalito, and more.

I discovered how challenging it can be for someone who has mobility issues. The ramps for wheelchairs aren’t always easy, sidewalk lips are a real issue, and crowded restaurants and bars are a nightmare. It isn’t because people don’t care or aren’t sympathetic; it’s just that everyone is involved in their own world and sometimes they don’t realize what it takes for someone with a wheelchair (or a cane or other support device) to get around.

For five days in San Francisco, I saw the world from the perspective of a person in a wheelchair and it was, frankly, exhausting. Even though many people went out of their way to be helpful, it was hard to maneuver around and I had to be alert for potential issues or risks. I was vigilant about making sure my dad was able to see the sites, to be respectful of other people and to stay safe – keeping an eye out for children running around, other tourists not paying attention to where they were walking, for things on the sidewalk that could catch the wheels, curb lips that weren’t that easy to navigate and – of course – hills. (We were in San Francisco…)

That’s when it hit me: People don’t always fully realize what specific stakeholders are going through or what the situation looks like from their perspective. Sometimes, you really do have to put yourself in their shoes to truly understand the challenges that they face (often on a daily basis). And there are times that these might be things that we take for granted or think are unimportant because they aren’t happening to us. It is a different world when you step into their shoes and actually experience what they live with every day.

This is very interesting to me because I believe – and have been told – that I have strength in the area of identifying how people receive information, given their specific situation or perspective. I am empathetic; I go out and listen to what people have to say. I work hard to fully understand what it means to the person I am speaking with. I am good at developing communications pieces that support change management because I realize how important it is to fully understand what people truly need or expect – not just what the organization wants them to know.

For me, it reinforced the importance of taking the time to really listen to the concerns and feedback of stakeholder groups. It opened me up to the fact that there are so many seemingly small pieces that can get overlooked unless you authentically shift your mindset from what needs to be communicated to what the people you are opening the conversation with want to hear. You need to “live in the shoes” of the people you want to connect with.

As communicators, we are often tasked with being the translator – taking organizational messages (positive or negative) to individuals and to stakeholder groups. I think it is important that we acknowledge how crucial it is to not just understand the messaging, but to embrace the perspective of the community and to truly realize what matters to those individuals. That will take us from being a good communicator to being a great one.

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Ruth at the White Palace in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

January is the time of year when we receive those end of year/new year messages, newsletters and blog posts. I know in the past week, I have received about two dozen of them. And I have to say, not many have resonated with me or provided any kind of value to me – which is the point of these communication outreach pieces, isn’t it?

I have heard how people are going to spend more time on finding their passion, travel more, make more effort to focus on their family life, live in Europe or Mexico or Belize for half the year, work a three or four-day work week, find work/life balance… And if I were sitting with a friend and hearing any of these things, my response would be: “Excellent! Good for you!”

However, some of the folks telling me these things are service providers – people who we bring into projects with our clients. Some of these lovely people provide support services to AHA, and our small-on-purpose agency relies on them. Some of these messages gave me pause and had me putting “find new option” on my to-do list. We’re all for work/life balance, spending more time with family, discovering your purpose and passion, and seeking out adventure; but there are ways to communicate those personal goals in a professional setting that showcases how this approach will benefit your client, strategic partner or service provider rather than worry them about how they will manage if you aren’t available.

All of our clients know that we’re travellers – both for work and for fun. We also make sure that they know that when we’re not in town, they won’t even notice that we’re not in the room. I have had Skype meetings with clients in Paris, Rome, Bangkok, New York City, Tampa… well, you get it – from anywhere and everywhere. I have co-presented in a Vancouver-based communications and social media workshop from Queenstown, New Zealand and have co-managed the media relations component of a high profile policy forum from The Bay of Islands, New Zealand.

Here at AHA, we feel a strong accountability and responsibility to our clients – and we want to have a full-on life – so we need to find a way that works for us and for our clients. And, in fact, our travel makes us better communicators, which benefits our clients overall. We see how things are done in other places, we discover best practices, we learn what works and what doesn’t work – and we bring it all home and deliver it to our clients. When we make a business or personal decision that impacts our professional life, it is always kept in mind how this can benefit our clients or what we need to do to make sure it – at the very least – doesn’t negatively impact them. And we clearly communicate that.

We got a newsletter from a designer colleague earlier this week that really got me to thinking about the missed opportunities in many of these year-end/new year outreach pieces. He said he and his partner were thinking about living in Europe for six months or a year – which as a human being, I think is a great idea. However, I think he missed an opportunity to clearly explain that he would be back in Vancouver regularly for clients if needed and that his move wouldn’t cost them anything. He could have explained how he would continue to service clients – citing how easily we can connect these days through Skype, and other technologies. He could have explained how getting some international experience could influence and evolve his skill set and how that would bring more to clients… but he didn’t. What I felt was concern that he was leaving and that I might be challenged by that.

Another professional connection sent out an email saying that they were going to chase their passion for cooking this year. And about three paragraphs in, I realized she meant that she was going to do this as a hobby or personal pursuit – that she wasn’t changing careers. If I had just glanced at this piece, that’s not the message I would have taken away. That could hurt her business development this year.

I think the biggest thing I noticed in this year’s batch of end of year/new year emails and newsletters is that, for the most part, they were all about the person writing them. It didn’t feel that they were about the recipient. There wasn’t anything in it for me as the reader of this piece (or as the client, strategic partner or service provider).

I think this is a key learning: When you are communicating, and you want the other person to care, give them something to care about – something that matters to them. Tell them clearly, even when it’s about you, what’s in it for them.

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I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend that, when I recounted it in the AHA PR office, sparked a pretty animated discussion. It was about advice that my friend received from some marketing professionals that she happened to meet at a workshop.

The people she met spoke with her for a short amount of time about her work (which is in the not-for-profit arena) and gave her some advice that she got quite excited about. Now, this friend isn’t a marketing person or a professional communicator. So the advice that these good meaning folks gave her sounded really good. Until you put it into context of the budget, resources and current situation of her organization. Then it made no sense at all. It wasn’t strategic; it didn’t have clear objectives. It was advice given with good intentions, but with no basis in the reality my friend lives in.

I have said it before and I will say it again – context matters. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. A while ago, we had the opportunity to develop an app for AHA. We thought about it quite seriously, but then we put ourselves through the same exercise we ask clients to do when it comes to this kind of thing. We asked ourselves what our stakeholder group would get out of this, what we, as a company, would get out of this (besides the fun of having our own app), and what the return-on-investment was for this project – was it financial, raising awareness of AHA and our services, was it providing additional value for our clients? In the end, we realized it wasn’t right for us at the time.

I have been a professional communicator for many years and I have put a great deal of energy into helping to shift the perception of what we do from tactical to strategic. Having random people toss out (in my opinion) unrealistic tactics regarding an organization that they really don’t understand – and not having a clear view of their objectives – pushes us backwards. Don’t be that person. Before you put forward an idea for your organization or your client, think about why you should do it. If you want to do it just because you can – that’s just not good enough.

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Before I leap into today’s blog post – I owe you an apology. Our AHA blog hasn’t been as active as usual and it completely falls on my shoulders. It’s been busy in our office and our focus has been on working with our clients to meet some tight, challenging deadlines. We’re loving every minute of it – we live for challenges and deadlines – but our blog and Fast Take Fridays have suffered. My apologies. I am committed to getting back on track starting today and going back to our writing, videotaping and posting schedule. I know if we had a client who went off track, I would be giving them a little grief with some nudging to get them back into the schedule. So, I had the same talk with myself this morning – and here I am back at it. (I can be quite persuasive when I want to be!)

I was reading a piece in the New York Times about people who write fake book reviews. And it really struck a nerve with me. I learned a long time ago not to trust all the reviews online – especially about books and for travel.  There is an entire growing industry that will write reviews on books, products or services – and just about anything you can think of – for a price. That’s not a review; it’s advertising or advertorial or promotion, but it’s not a review. And in my mind – it is unethical.

Public relations is about authenticity and transparency – and not disclosing that you have been paid to do something is about as far away from that as you can get. It doesn’t mean people can’t get paid for checking things out for organizations. In my opinion, Chris Brogan is a perfect example of approaching this with integrity. He discloses when he has been given something – the product, a payment or he gets an affiliate referral fee when you click from his email or website and buy something. I also trust Chris; he has proven time and time again that he won’t lie to me about a product just because he got paid to review it. I am good with that approach; just tell me your relationship with what you are reviewing.

This New York Times article is worth a read. It may open your eyes to the fact that a lot of information that we are being fed online just isn’t true – and, in fact, some of it is downright dishonest. We’re still working out the ethics and values of the Internet. And I think it’s going to take some time.

When you do check out reviews online, put the review and reviewer in context. Check out their other reviews. I almost didn’t stay at a hotel because there was a scathing review of it from someone. At the last minute, I checked out what else this person had reviewed – and he had reviewed a lot. He hated everything. He had over 200 reviews on TripAdvisor and not one of them was positive.

Often the first five to ten reviews for a book or product are from friends, families or employees of the company. Unless they disclose their association or affiliation, I wouldn’t trust them. And especially with people who have self-published or are from a smaller company promoting their book, products and services – you will often see a small group of people who write reviews for each other. There is a little circle of promotion that happens that is pretty easy to identify. Put reviews in context. Don’t take them as face value.

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