Public Relations

By Ruth Atherley

I have a diverse group of “friends” on Facebook. Some are family, some close friends, and some I have met through work or even through online groups and courses. They don’t see the world from the same perspective or through the same lens – at all. It can be very interesting to watch the differing opinions come out when something serious is going on in the world.

I think that stepping out of my own biases is important. I work hard to understand why people feel the way they do about a topic – and it’s not always easy to do when it appears that their values sit opposite to mine. I might not agree, but I do try to dig in and appreciate where they are coming from. As a global citizen and as a communications professional, I believe it is my obligation to put my personal lens aside so that I can better understand what their motivating factors are, especially for some of the more extreme opinions. It’s not comfortable or easy. (And I admit, there are quite a few ideologies that have recently become emboldened that I will never understand – and that I publicly push back against. But that is a blog post for another time.)

Often, a situation will arise or an incident will happen that has people commenting online – including on my Facebook page, which I take as a little microcosm of the world. And it is surprising how people can interpret what happened differently – usually in a way that supports their own belief system or narrative.

Even something as innocent as a little Facebook meme reminds me of how important it is to take the time to understand how your target market or audience sees the world and will view the information you want to share with them.

The other day, the image we have shared in this post was making the rounds on Facebook. It seemed like a pretty harmless little meme. Within a few days, two individuals on my Facebook page had shared it. Their description of it and the comments that were added by their Facebook friends were very different.

One person’s opinion was that when something happens on Facebook and people send “positive energy” and “love,” it is a useless, empty act that means nothing. Each of the comments on this person’s post agreed with him. It took on quite a mocking tone about how sending “positive energy” helps no one who has just experienced a terrorist attack, the loss of a loved one, or is having a difficult time.

Another Facebook friend shared the same meme – and said that this is exactly what is in her mind when she sees someone sending “positive energy” – that they are letting you know they are thinking about you and that they care. And the comments on her post supported that opinion.

As a communications professional, it is up to me to make sure that when a client is planning some type of announcement, campaign or initiative, we are all fully aware of what the response might be. And – even what might, to some, seem like a positive event or project could receive a critical response from others. You can’t make assumptions that everyone is on the same page or that they will see this (or anything) from the same perspective.

We have to be hyper-aware of any potentially negative or critical response and help our client to: a) understand why there might be this type of response; and b) to get ahead of it and be prepared. It doesn’t mean that we can make it go away, but perhaps there is a way to acknowledge and address the criticism(s) during the planning stage.

We all have biases and we see the world through our own experiences and belief systems. As communicators, we need to step into this and take the time to understand what that really means for our clients.

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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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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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