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dreamstime_xs_54635780The AHA team has earned a strong reputation for strategic communications surrounding sensitive subject matter. Quite often, this means working with a client during an issue or crisis – but not always. Many organizations deal with sensitive subject matter on a daily basis and taking a “typical” issue or crisis communication approach isn’t necessarily the right way to go when this is the case. The widespread use of social media and a 24/7 news cycle has made this more complex – and often complicated. Understanding this is only the start of being effective and in ensuring that stakeholder groups (including advocacy groups, critics, media, the public, sometimes government, and others) feel that they are being kept informed in an authentic and transparent manner.

The thing is, when sensitive subject matter is involved, so are emotions. And, quite often, it can be easy to forget that. Understanding that stakeholders may react with anger, frustration or distrust should always be front and centre when developing positioning and messages. Taking a moment to put yourself in the shoes of a person who is highly critical or mistrustful or who has felt disenfranchised or ignored is crucial. And it’s not easy to do this when there are deadlines, budgets and demands placed on the organization’s staff.

When working with sensitive subject matter on a daily basis, often staff will use humour or perhaps remove themselves emotionally in order to deal with the situation. That is a pretty human thing to do, but it can be misinterpreted and misunderstood – and that can easily turn into an issue on social media.

Monitoring social media is a key part of any effective communications strategy – and it is even more important when dealing with sensitive subject matter. Understanding what is being said and shared on social media provides insight into how specific stakeholders might be feeling, it can identify where there has been a misunderstanding or miscommunication, and it provides the organization with an opportunity – in a respectful and inclusive manner – to reach out and correct any factual errors, to address any mistakes or missteps, and to participate in the conversation.

One of the key elements of our success in working with clients who deal with sensitive subject matter on a regular basis is to fully understand the topic – and the stakeholder groups. Often, taking the time to truly listen to a critic (a negative response or someone who is mistrustful) provides insight into what needs to be done as a communicator in order to help shift perception. Sometimes that means explaining what was done wrong and how it is going to be made right.

Social media has put additional (and intense) pressure on those who work in areas of sensitive subject matter – especially high profile or controversial initiatives. Being proactive in sharing information, responding respectfully and inclusively to critics or naysayers, and ensuring that you fully understand the perspective of all stakeholders – not just the ones who support or agree with the organization – is crucial. And social media provides the ability to do this in a timely and public manner.

We have worked with many organizations where the senior team had initially been concerned about social media and what could happen. After gaining a deeper understanding of the opportunities as well as the risks of social, we could see a shift in their thinking regarding the value of engaging online.

While effectively managing sensitive subject matter online takes time, effort and resources, it can also be an incredibly valuable communications tool that allows an organization to authentically, transparently and effectively engage with both supportive and critical stakeholders.

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Several conversations with colleagues, mentors and the AHA Creative Strategies team recently inspired me to take on an interesting campaign. We’re calling it The AHA 100 Cups of Coffee Campaign. In a nutshell, I am aiming to meet 100 different individuals for a cup of coffee (or tea – we’re not sticklers for that detail) from July 1, 2016 to July 1, 2017.

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dreamstime_xs_42729484There appears to be an unfortunate trend happening in how we communicate. It’s the “you’re wrong” approach, typically followed by “and I am right.” It is an incredibly ineffective, divisive approach to authentic and engaging communication, yet it is one that is growing – particularly when it comes to public discussion and discourse. The challenge is that once this type of approach becomes “normal” or typical, it bleeds into how we communicate in other ways.

The recent Canadian federal election and the upcoming U.S. presidential election appear to be key contributors to this fast-growing trend – as do many of the challenging social and political situations that we are facing in the world. Recently, on Facebook, I watched a discussion on something that Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, said. And, the fact is, it really wasn’t a discussion – it was a series of smart, educated, caring people stating things like:

  • “Americans are so stupid. Why can’t you see how evil he is?”
  • “I can’t believe that people are dumb enough to be fooled by him.”
  • “The U.S. is full of idiots and fools.”

In my experience, this isn’t the way to get someone to actually listen to you. If someone spoke to me in this way, I don’t think I would feel encouraged to have a respectful dialogue with them. And a respectful dialogue might lead to both of us learning something and opening our minds.

Now, this post isn’t about Trump, the U.S. election or any specific event or situation. It is about understanding a more strategic, respectful and inclusive approach to sharing an opinion, idea or ideology – even when you are passionate and truly believe that you are right. The declarations about Trump and the U.S. could have been about coffee (“I can’t believe you don’t drink coffee in the morning; you are stupid not to see how good it is.”) or anything else.

Many of our clients often have to put forward information that stakeholders don’t want to hear, might not agree with, or that just makes them feel frustrated or angry. In order to do this, it is always crucial to understand what it will feel like for the stakeholder (employee, partner, customer, etc.) to hear this news or information. It is important to listen to why they feel a certain way and what their perspective is – even if you don’t agree with it or understand it.

This is an active listening approach – where you actually listen to what is being said. The how, why and, often, what isn’t being said are important here too. It is why authentic public consultation has become an integral part of any large-scale change by both public and private sector organizations. Respectful, authentic engagement is at the heart of effective communications – and a solid, well-functioning society.

We have worked with countless clients on stakeholder communications, managing public consultation initiatives and organizational change, where engagement was key. Anytime we have experienced real challenges, we could trace a direct line back to the stakeholder group feeling unheard, disrespected or disconnected.

What happens when absolute and insulting statements, like the ones I saw on Facebook, are put forward? It pushes people farther away from finding any common ground, from working to understand the situation from a different perspective, and from engaging so that they can learn more. Unfortunately, it appears that we are losing sight of that, especially in the world of social media.

Author and communications professional Jim Hoggan has written a great book, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up on this subject. I am about one-third of the way through the book and I think it’s worth a read for everyone – not just communications professionals.

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dreamstime_xs_52765848The AHA team recently met with several of our clients and a few prospective clients to plan out communications initiatives. More and more often, digital content and brand storytelling is an important component in how we are helping our clients to tell their stories, moving forward.

In this day and age, an organization cannot rely solely on media relations or publicity to tell their stories. More and more media outlets are shifting to sponsored content, especially in the “softer” news segments (think breakfast TV, talk shows, lifestyle and business sections of publications and, of course, online). They might not announce it, but there are partnership and sponsorship deals happening that result in advertorial-like coverage. The challenge right now is that the media outlets doing this aren’t exactly being transparent with their audiences about the source of the content. As communications professionals, we all know it. We can spot a sponsored segment a mile away, but our clients are not as immersed in the media and may not.

It is harder and harder to get “earned” media coverage (editorial coverage that is pitched to media and is covered because it is a solid news item or tells a good story). That means that organizations must tell their own stories. These days, people get online and go to a search engine to find out information. This is an opportunity for your organization to tell your story and to use search engine optimization (SEO) to help potential clients, customers or other stakeholders find you.

There are now full-time digital content producer/manager/editor/curator positions at many companies. Creating your own content and housing it online is not something that is leading edge or brand new, but it is something that every company needs to be doing.

Rather than lament the decrease in media coverage, smart organizations are seeing this as a huge opportunity to build relationships with stakeholders, to engage with their communities, and to tell their own stories in an interesting, engaging, compelling and often entertaining way. Articles, Q&As, videos, photos, blogs, podcasts, videocasts… there are so many mediums to choose from and, depending on the demographic and content consumption habits of your stakeholder groups and communities, you may choose to use two, three or four different approaches to sharing information.

One of the first things we do with a client who wants to start or increase their digital content production is to look at who they want to connect with and where these individuals and groups are online, and we find out how they consume content, what their online habits are, and what are they interested in. It is a combination of an audit and research approach that provides us with solid information on what communications tools, tactics and mediums to use in order to engage in a fulsome manner. Knowing this allows you to build out your content/editorial schedule, to identify how to measure success, and to set key performance indicators.

Once you have created or produced content, it’s not enough to upload it and hope someone will read or view it; you need to think like a publisher and promote it to your potential audience. And you need to continue to monitor and engage. This is a key element of the plan that we focus on when working with clients. SEO, promotion of your content, identifying and connecting with influencers who can help expand and extend your audience base, and engaging with your readers/viewers in a timely, authentic and relationship-building approach is a long-term commitment that increases in value as you build momentum (and relationships).

It is an exciting time for organizations with a good story to tell. The ability to create great content and build an audience is in our hands. And it can be an incredible asset when done well.

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Social MediaWe have had an exceptional response to our Social Media 101 series (Facebook; Twitter). In fact, I met with a client the other day, a senior executive at a high-profile organization, who told me that he really appreciates the series because it is helping him to better understand social media tools, technology and tactics. He laughingly told me: “I kind of have to fake it a bit when my team talks about social media because I know so little and I don’t want to admit that to them.” And he said that our series is giving him the basics, so now social media is starting to make sense to him – and that means more productive meetings with his staff.

People like this client are exactly why we are producing this series. Many people understand social media, but there are also others who don’t. In our experience, there are many senior executives – CEOs, presidents, executive directors, general managers, vice presidents, directors and senior managers – who may have limited knowledge or understanding of social media in general. Some of these professionals may even work in the marketing or communications departments or divisions and, because of their leadership role, they don’t get as involved in the use of social media as others who handle the day-to-day activities. Because of this, they feel like they don’t know enough about social media and, often, they don’t really want to publicly admit this because they are in senior positions.

It’s a tough spot to be in. These are smart, engaged professionals. It can sometimes be challenging for them to grasp even the basics of social media because they are busy and social media technologies and tools change so rapidly and regularly. This blog series – Social Media 101 – aims to help anyone who is struggling with social media basics to understand the networks and use them a bit better. We know we can’t be everything to everyone, but providing a brief overview with a little bit of context of how social media is being used today seems to be useful to quite a few people – from the feedback we have heard.

With that in mind, after asking a few people who expressed interest in this series, we have a list of the topics that we are going to cover here over the next few months. If there is something you would like to know about that isn’t listed here, please send us a message and let us know.

Upcoming Social Media 101 posts are:

  • LinkedIn (including LinkedIn Pulse)
  • YouTube
  • Google+
  • Pinterest
  • Instagram
  • Snapchat
  • Vine
  • Tumblr
  • Reddit

We will, of course, be updating this list as needed. And, if it continues to be popular, we may go back and revisit it, adding specific ways to use these networks to engage your stakeholder groups and communities.

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