Communications

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is back in the media again because a recent video has surfaced showing him rambling drunk at a fast-food restaurant.

People around the world know him as the “Crack Mayor.” In fact, when we were recently in South Africa to connect with a client, we were often asked about him. When people heard that we were from Canada, they usually laughed and asked about the “Crack Mayor.” It happened in Johannesburg, Knysna, Cape Town and Swaziland. It even happened on a safari in the African bush from a person who spends 80% of his life at a game lodge many miles away from the closest town, television or newspaper. It’s clear that Mr. Ford has put the eyes of the world on himself – and by association, Toronto and even Canada.

I think we are all aware of the substance and alcohol issues that Mr. Ford appears to be struggling with. It has been reported that while it is dwindling, he does still have support from some of the factions of voters in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). However, this blog post really isn’t about Mr. Ford – it’s about the responsibilities that we, as communicators, face. What would you do if Rob Ford was your client – or if you were the director of communications for the GTA?

The Rob Ford issue has been going on for some time. In spring 2013, Mr. Ford fired his then chief of staff (reportedly because the chief of staff told him to get help), shortly after his press secretary and deputy communications officer quit. Brother (and City Councillor) Doug Ford’s executive assistant was then appointed director of communications. And, as we all know, since then, media have been having a hay day with Mr. Ford, his antics and his headline grabbing, late night comedy monologue inspiring comments.

We have spent some time discussing the challenges being faced by the mayor’s office and how we would handle ongoing issues such as the ones they continue to experience. Everyone at our PR agency is very dedicated to our clients, yet when it comes to a situation like this – the response always comes around to the fact that this appears to be one of those situations where we would have to resign the account.

From an outside perspective (meaning I don’t know what goes on behind closed doors at Toronto City Hall), the issues with Mr. Ford have nothing to do with communication. I can’t see any way a communications person could make the current situation better. And it appears to me that Mr. Ford isn’t listening to anyone’s counsel or advice.

Here at AHA, we have solid issues and crisis communication experience and while we have had our share of challenging clients, we’ve never had to deal with this extreme. Usually, clients come to us (for issues and crisis communication or for proactive PR) because they have something going on that requires our specific expertise and skill set. It’s not always cut and dried or even straightforward. In fact, there have been quite a few times where there have been heated discussions about how to approach communication around an issue and not everyone at the table has immediately agreed with the strategy we put forward. We see it as our job to not only engage in these types of conversations, but to encourage and facilitate them. A good strategy can be outlined, explained and described. It can be laid out in a manner that allows those involved in the decision-making process to understand the rationale and reasoning for the plan. A part of our job is to use critical thinking in reviewing what might work – and to “go at” an idea to make sure it is the right idea at the right time. It’s important to approach communication from different perspectives, opinions and platforms and to work through the good, the bad and the ugly. That’s just a part of the work we do (and it’s not always pretty or easy, but it is effective).

We have asked ourselves what we would do if we had a client who didn’t take our advice and consistently went rogue with the media in the way Mr. Ford has. The answer: The first time it happened, we would have to have a respectful, yet frank, conversation with our client about whether we were a good fit for that organization and that leader. We would ask why they weren’t valuing our expertise and skill set when they were paying for it and had brought us to the table to contribute.

As for working with someone who lies or misleads the media and stakeholders – we’d be out. No amount of strategic communications or PR can help someone who lies or purposely misleads. A person who made a mistake and is truly sorry for their mistake or error – someone who is willing to step up, take responsibility, be accountable and make it right – that is someone that you can help. A person in a leadership role (or any role, for that matter) who has lost their moral compass, who doesn’t see what they are doing as wrong, who finds a way to justify it, or who just doesn’t care – that’s not a communications issue. It’s an ethics and integrity issue and they require help of another kind.

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800px-Carnival_SplendorThere is a direct link between generating results for your organization – whatever that means to you (sales, engagement, response, behaviour change, perception change etc.) – and living your brand promise.

I had an interesting experience over the weekend that so clearly showed the importance of customer service and how it supports PR and the brand promise, that I want to tell you about it. We are cruisers. While we might not meet the stereotype of a cruiser, we have taken quite a few cruises – in the Mediterranean, to Mexico, in the Caribbean.

Now, it’s pretty clear that the cruise industry has been challenged over recent years – the Costa Concordia tragedy, several ships having issues out at sea, dealing with norovirus, and other serious challenges. The industry is in desperate need of some good PR. Even as I wrote this blog post, there was more negative news coverage of the cruise industry.

This past weekend, I got a call from Chris, our “personal cruise consultant” from Carnival Cruise Lines – a cruise line we have sailed with in the past (the last time was probably five years ago). It was at the end of the day on Friday and I was a little bored, so I took the call. Chris was knowledgeable, engaging and professional and he came across as a nice guy who authentically wanted to help us find a cruise vacation that we would enjoy – at a good price. And his enthusiasm was contagious. I ended up talking to him for 15 minutes or so and he gave me some good options for a Caribbean cruise. We had no plans for any cruise at this point, but he engaged me – and he had some great promotional offers for us as past cruisers. By the time I hung up the phone, I was thinking about taking one of the cruises he had offered.

On the flip side of that, we have also cruised with Norwegian Cruise Lines and several other cruise lines (some five star, some budget, some in the middle). We book ships based on the ports they visit – so we have hopped around a bit between cruise lines.

I am planning a bucket list trip of the British Isles and likely Ireland and Scotland, for my dad and his wife. Once cruising was in my mind, I wondered if maybe Norwegian had some love for me, so I called them. In trying to find the right person to speak to, I was put on hold for 45 minutes. (I have to say, the first person who took the call was very good and tried to help.) I finally gave up. An hour later, I got a call from someone at Norwegian who said they had seen that I was on their website and they asked what could they do to help get me on that cruise I was looking at. They didn’t mention that I had called and had been put into “on hold hell” – with Norwegian audio ads cycling over and over – just that I was on their website. I explained my issue and the person did the surface “I am so sorry for your inconvenience” but they still couldn’t help me access whether I would qualify for the specific promotions I was asking about. It was not their department.

By now, we had received an e-mail from Chris at Carnival outlining what we would receive through the promotion, a link to the ship’s layout and some additional information on the cruise. A nice touch, especially on a cold, gloomy winter day in January when the thought of sun, surf and sand was quite appealing. It tipped us into deciding to take the Carnival cruise.

We booked with Carnival and it was because of the exceptional customer service and follow up by Chris. I know he is there to sell me a cruise, but he made it fun and easy and he hit all of the right notes with me (five amazing ports in a seven-day cruise). It helped that he had some nice promotions to offer. Good for Carnival for giving him the tools he needs to do his job well. I now have a sense of loyalty to him – and Carnival – because he made me feel like we were important past guests and he wanted to do whatever he could to bring us back to the Carnival family.

As for Norwegian, I called them again on Monday because I wanted to know how long it would really take to get someone to talk to me about the British Isles cruise (Carnival doesn’t have a British Isles itinerary). I finally got to the right person at the promotions desk and they told me that since it had been 18 months since I had taken a cruise with them, I was not eligible for any of the specific promotions I was asking about. My slate, so to speak, had been wiped clean. Interesting – it had been much longer than 18 months since I had been on a Carnival cruise, but they wanted me back and were offering some pretty sweet incentives to interest me in returning!

I thanked the person and hung up the phone a little surprised and disappointed. Clearly, Norwegian isn’t trying to woo me back as a past cruiser. Then – two hours later, I got a call AGAIN from another Norwegian “personal cruise representative” trying to get me on a cruise! I explained that I had already talked to someone and I got the “I am so sorry ma’am” talk and then the “that’s a different department” excuse. Not once did Chris from Carnival try to put me off to another department – so good on Carnival for giving their team the ability to be what I need from a cruise specialist. On Tuesday, Norwegian called again – another different “personal cruise representative” wanted to talk to me about my cruise interests. Obviously, no one at Norwegian puts any notes on a person’s file so that they will know who has called or what the feedback has been.

Carnival will need to keep up with delivering on their brand promise on the cruise – and I am interested to see what they will do in this area. However, I can say that in my experience this weekend with my interaction with Carnival, they walked the talk. All of the advertising, marketing or PR in the world won’t work unless the person who your customer, client or stakeholder connects with delivers on your brand promise. Every interaction – from what the president of the organization does when he or she is in line for their daily coffee, to how the customer feels they are being treated through the sales process, to the actual experience you have with what you have purchased or contracted for, has to reflect the brand promise. Chris from Carnival completely delivered on their brand promise – he made it fun, he made it easy, and by living the brand promise, he got us to book a cruise that wasn’t even in our minds before he called. He got results. He re-engaged us with the Carnival brand and he earned my loyalty.

I am now telling people that I think Carnival gets it right – without having been on a ship in about five years; I have re-engaged with their brand and have become an ambassador for them. In fact, I have put it out to several of my friends that they should come on this cruise with us. It’s that straightforward – if your employees bring your brand promise to life with each interaction with a customer or client, you get results.

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AHA - Social MediaI recently had a conversation with an acquaintance that went something like this:

Him: “Hey Ruth, I was thinking about those hash mark thingies…”

Me: “Do you mean hashtags?”

Him: “Yeah, those things. Do you think it would be worth choosing one to put on our e-mail signature?”

Needless to say, we had a more in-depth conversation about hashtags. We also discussed developing a one-on-one social media workshop for him so that he could better understand social media from both a strategic and a tactical (tools and technology) viewpoint.

The challenge is that this person handles a component of communications at a senior level for a very high profile organization. He is one of a handful of people who provide guidance and advice to the CEO of this organization, including advice on social media. And he has been advocating for the use of Twitter and Facebook for a few months now.

Don’t get me wrong, the person who asked me about the “hash mark thingies” is very smart and highly successful in his field of expertise. However, he doesn’t understand social media and doesn’t realize how much he doesn’t know. That is an issue for his organization.

We get calls pretty regularly from senior people who want to know more about social media. Some of them want to meet privately and have a tutoring session; others want to include their senior team, their board or others in a social media workshop. I think that for those of us who are involved in the world of communications and PR, there is an assumption that everyone knows what we know. That just isn’t the case.

First off, the tools and technologies are ever evolving. It can be challenging to keep up. And, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Talking to your kids over dinner about Facebook or Twitter is not the same as having someone who understands your business goals and your communications objectives assist you in developing your social media strategy (as a part of your communications strategy). Social media is not a stand-alone or “stand-apart” component; it belongs in your overall communications plan.

The fact is – not every organization needs to be “active” on social media. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know what is going on in your industry or that you shouldn’t monitor what’s being said about your organization on social media. Both negative and positive conversations should be monitored. Developing your plan on how, what, when, where and why you will use social media is something that needs to be clearly defined and taken seriously.

Speak with your communications department, PR team or your consultant – or call us. We can help you define what you need when it comes to social media workshops or coaching.

Before you make any decisions about social media activities, make sure you understand the landscape relevant to your industry, the social media environment and what your risks and opportunities are – relative to your communications strategy.

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dreamstime_xs_31832574We recently had several discussions with clients and colleagues about the use and value of hashtags. For some professionals who aren’t regular users or participants in social media, there is a perception that a hashtag can be created and it’s then yours – that you kind of own it and have control over it. Nothing could be further from the truth. (If you aren’t quite sure what a hashtag is, please check out Wikipedia for a definition. And as a communicator, don’t assume that everyone knows what a hashtag is. It might be a common term in your world, but there are many who don’t know. And they might be afraid to ask for fear of looking stupid.)

While social media conversations and dialogue can be started, facilitated and participated in, any organization that believes that it can – for any length of time – control the dialogue is sadly mistaken (and really isn’t seeing the value of social media, in my opinion).

One of the interesting things to come out of advertising, marketing and even PR is the defined use of hashtags in campaigns. Many (usually larger) organizations use them in the hopes of driving social media users to help their hashtags trend and get their community to engage in positive sharing about their goods or services. That approach has some big risks involved. If it goes sideways, your hashtag no longer becomes a tool for positive communication; it can become a key facilitator for negative comments, humour at your expense and, at worst, attacks on your brand.

Hashtags are meant to allow people to easily find a topic, to bring people interested in a topic together organically, and to help organize and find the incredible amount of information out there on Twitter and Instagram. They aren’t meant as a promotional tool for your organization.

Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t use them in that way, but you do need to clearly identify the risks to this type of usage and have a plan in place in case your hashtag is hijacked. You can’t stop popular opinion (or in the case of Twitter – active opinion by a small, committed, influential and often really funny group of individuals). They could take what you thought was a brilliant promotional campaign and turn it into a mockery of your brand that then makes it onto The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report. And that’s bad for your brand reputation.

I found a piece on Mashable that showcases some hashtag hijacks that have gone wrong (and one that went right as far as truth, justice and equality go). You can read it here. You have to admit, hashtag hijackers can be funny people.

We always go through a strengths, opportunities, weaknesses, threats (SWOT) review with clients if we are considering any kind of social media outreach. You can’t make assumptions that everyone is going to respond in the way you want them to/expect them to on social media. And it is always important to remember that you don’t own your hashtag, your Twitter feed, your Facebook page or other social networking sites. You might be the administrator who facilitates the discussion, but it’s the people who decide the tone and topic. Respect and appreciate that. Even if there are negative discussions, you can glean some valuable stakeholder/target market feedback. 

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