AHA

dreamstime_xs_38753909By Ruth Atherley

A couple of years ago, I found myself in South Africa meeting with one of our travel clients, Londolozi – a five-star safari lodge. Like most professionals that I know who are fortunate enough to travel for business, I took the opportunity to add some time onto the trip to see some of the beautiful country of South Africa. What an incredible place. I loved every minute of my time there and am looking forward to the day when I can go back.

One of the activities I did was cage diving with great white sharks off the coast of Gansbaai, which is about a two-hour drive from Cape Town. I have been thinking a great deal about that experience and what I learned that day.

Below are the top three communications lessons I learned from cage diving with great whites.

Prepare for What Could Go Wrong

When I decided to go cage diving with great whites, I did a huge amount of research. I read reviews of all of the tour providers, I read travel pieces about the activity, I talked to people who had done it – and one of the things I was looking for was what could go wrong. For this activity, it came down to two things that could spoil the adventure: 1) weather and 2) sea sickness (the threat of a shark bite is handled in the next point – “listen to the experts”).

I had no control over the weather, so I scheduled my cage dive early enough in my trip so that if the weather was bad, I could rebook it. And I did everything possible to keep from getting seasick. Even though I used to live on a boat and on a floating home, have sailed, boated, cruised, swam, waterskied and wake boarded all my life – I didn’t want to be seasick and miss out on this experience. I tool Gravol, I had ginger pieces with me, I had acupuncture bands to wear – and that worked for me. Several people on our boat were too seasick to do more than lay on the deck and groan – and I was so glad I had prepared for the “what could go wrong” scenario. And that’s what we need to think about as communicators – to make sure that we are prepared for what could happen. Putting solutions in place before the fact might seem like a lot of work for something that might never occur, but when it does – it makes a huge difference in managing the situation.

Learn as Much as You Can From the Experts

I did a huge amount of research in choosing the right great white shark cage diving tour operator. I wanted one that respected the environment, the ecosystem and the sharks. I also wanted the people running the tour to be experts on our safety. The boat’s captain gave an overview of how to keep safe both in and out of the water, we were informed about how we would find sharks and how to respect them and the environment – and each crewmember was clearly an expert on dealing with the guests’ fears, concerns and stupidity. No one got to show off, act out or do anything that didn’t comply with the rules.

However, beyond that, on the way out to sea and back in, I sat with several of the crewmembers. I took the opportunity to ask them some questions and the information they shared with me was exceptional. I asked them what I should be looking for, what they thought was the most interesting part of this encounter, and what they wished they could tell everyone who took this tour. Their responses were incredible – personal, inspiring, thoughtful, educational – and a few frightening ones! They had done hundreds, if not thousands, of these trips. They knew many of the sharks by sight and told me about their characteristics, their history and their behaviours. It was clear how much the crew respected and cared about the sharks – and appreciated being able to do this each day. And they seemed excited that I was curious enough to seek them out and ask questions – they kept calling me over to show me things.

As communicators, we often turn to subject matter experts to provide information for news releases, media pitches, statements, content creation and more. Rather than just getting the information you need for whatever you are working on, take a moment and actively listen to what the expert is passionate about, ask what they think people should know, and ask them what they feel is the key element regarding the topic. It is amazing how much more engaging your content will be when you do this.

Think About the Situation From a Different Perspective

Don’t get me wrong… I was incredibly happy that there was a cage in between me and the seven great white sharks we saw that day. But being in the water with those magnificent, elegant and incredibly powerful creatures made me think about the reports of shark attacks – which, for the most part, are quite rare and not often fatal. In fact, in 2015, more people died taking selfies of themselves than by shark attacks.

For the most part, when a shark bites a human being, it has either misidentified the person as food – such as a seal – or it is in investigative mode, trying to figure out what the person is: foe, food or a non-threat. If you view the shark from that perspective, they aren’t the monster human stalkers that they are often made out to be. They aren’t motivated by the need to kill.

As communicators, we often need to reach out during times of transition, organizational change, or in response to an issue or a crisis. It is easy to fall into the trap of seeing critics or those who are pushing back in a negative light. And that can impact the tone and style of what, when and how you communicate. Taking a step back and trying to understand what the barriers are – and why they exist – is an effective step forward in creating authentic, useful communication strategies, tools or tactics. Our role as communicators is to understand the intended audience, community or group, so that we can find the best way to authentically and respectfully communicate with them.

There have been times when it has fallen to me to explain to a client what, how and why people are not embracing change – that they feel disconnected from the leadership and their decisions or that they aren’t happy with decisions being made at an organizational level – and to effectively do that, it is crucial that I understand the perspective of the stakeholder in question. This doesn’t mean that I necessarily agree, but I have to be able to understand why the individual, team, department, company or group feels that way and be able to clearly share that with our client and provide recommendations on how we can bridge the gap. Shifting perspective is an important tool in doing this.

Cage diving with great whites was an incredible experience and one that I will never forget. And it gave me another lesson – more of a life lesson, I think. Do what scares you. I was pretty nervous about getting into the water with the sharks, and even though my hands were shaking and my heart was pounding, I did it anyway. I am so happy that I did. I have taken that lesson forward too and it’s made a huge difference in how l live my life.

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dreamstime_xs_65257404We spend a lot of time talking about, producing and getting client approval on great content here at AHA. We create a range of pieces – from speeches to newsletters, web content, editorial-style articles, infographics, presentations, video series, photo essays, news releases, media pitches, social media content (including Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, LinkedIn and more), blog posts… and so much more. And – before we put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, turn the camera on, or open PowerPoint, Keynote or iMovie… we identify who the targeted audience/community is and work out where the content will be distributed, shared or shown.

We’ve all heard that content is king, but is it really king if it’s not effectively distributed, shared or shown? You can create the best content in the world, but if you don’t share the content in the right place – the place where the targeted individuals, groups or communities are – then it isn’t effective.

For content to work, it has to be seen, be understood and, in most cases, be shared by the influencers, the engagers and the leaders in the target market. By creating content that authentically speaks to them, that resonates and that attracts, and by making sure that it is seen at the right time and in the right medium or network – you are creating the opportunity to ignite the engagement with your stakeholder groups. This is such an important piece of stakeholder engagement and one that is often overlooked when developing a content strategy. It makes a huge difference in the results that you can generate through branded content.

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dreamstime_xs_51748984Early in my journalism career, I applied for a section editor position at a national magazine where I worked. The section editor was responsible for following trends, fads and news, identifying the types of articles that would be written for the section, pitching them at the weekly story meetings, and assigning and editing articles. I thought it would be a good step forward in my career.

During the interview for the job, the senior editor asked me what I thought was more important – understanding which topics our readers wanted to see or going with what I thought we should write about. To me, it felt like a bit of a trick question. While this role demanded that the editor have a clear understanding of what was going on in the world relevant to the areas that the section covered, understanding what our readers wanted seemed crucial to the success of the section and for the magazine overall. And I said so. The senior editor smiled, made a note, and we moved on to other areas of responsibility.

It turned out that I didn’t get the job. The editor told me that he thought I would be happier working as a writer rather than an editor and he wanted someone who had a bit more experience than I had, at that point. He also said that out of the 20 or more seasoned, talented, experienced journalism professionals he interviewed for this role, I was the only one who said that understanding what our readers were interested in was a priority. All of the others got it wrong – they thought they knew better about what their readers would like. He told me to hold on to that attitude and that it would take me far. And I took that advice seriously.

Here at AHA, we have recently been taking a deep dive into creating engaging content with several of our clients. And before any content creation (written, audio or visual) is undertaken, we take three important steps to ensure that what we produce will be relevant, engaging, useful and timely.

Understand Your Stakeholder Group, Target Market or Community

The first step is to understand who you want to engage – who do you want to inform, connect with, update or start a conversation with? Defining your audience is crucial and fully understanding what they are interested in; what their perspective is; what – if any – their bias is; and sometimes, depending on the subject matter, understanding their hopes, fears and dreams are all important too.

There are many ways to do this and social media provides us with a communication channel that makes it easy to see how people are feeling about ideas, products, trends and organizations. It’s not always easy to embrace the criticism or negative feedback, but it is always valuable.

Research How They Consume Information

You will use different communications vehicles or social networks, depending on the audience you want to speak with. It is important to identify where your stakeholder group, target market or community spends time online. Is their demographic active on Facebook? Is Twitter their medium? Is YouTube their favourite place to learn more? Where do they go to get information, to be entertained, or to join a discussion or conversation? Discovering how they consume information is also about what mediums they prefer – video, podcast, article, short blog post…

There are times, depending on who it is that you want to engage, when you may need to create more than one type of communications piece to share your information or message. It may be a blog post, a photo essay or a video series. If your stakeholder group is diverse, it is important to share information in different formats so that you will reach as many people as possible.

Identify How to Share Your Content in a Way That Best Meets the Needs of Your Stakeholder Group

Once you understand the needs, demands and expectations of your stakeholder group, target market or community, then it is time to put together the information that you want to share in a way that will be most appealing to your target market. This has to be done in an authentic, respectful manner. You can’t just wrap bad news up in a pretty package and hope that no one will notice. In undertaking this important step, it is crucial to put together an information package that a) reflects the culture or habits of the community you are speaking with; and b) is produced in a way that will encourage consumption of the information.

Making sure that you balance what you want to share with the needs of the people you want to engage is key. We still see some organizations pushing out information that their target market doesn’t find interesting or doesn’t care about. There is no value in creating content if it isn’t going to be of interest or appeal to the people in your target market.

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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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