reputation

By Ruth Atherley

Social media can ruin your future. It’s that simple. Social media puts your reputation at risk when you post something inappropriate, illegal, immoral, unethical or just plain nasty. A perfect example of this is a small group of Harvard University accepted students – who engaged in a private Facebook chat where they shared sexually explicit memes and messages that also targeted minority groups. They aren’t going to Harvard now. Their admission has been rescinded, according to the Ivy League school. Their futures aren’t so bright now.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened and it won’t be the last. Heck, there are people who were stars in the world of PR and social media who have been taken down because they posted something unacceptable – often thinking they were being funny.

One of the elements of social media that I appreciate – in both my personal and professional life – is how it allows you to see someone for who they truly are. Years ago, before social media (remember that?), people could show one face publicly and be someone else entirely behind closed doors. Not anymore. Social media has erased that boundary – and I think that is a great thing. You see, even if people are trying to showcase themselves in a particular way, if it isn’t authentic to who they really are – at some point – they will slip up, let their guard down, respond to something… and they will get caught. And many of those people should be unmasked for who and what they really are. If there is a theme of ugly beliefs or behaviours that surface, then they deserve what they get.

What about the person who makes a genuine mistake or the one who behaves poorly but learns from it? Social media is unforgiving – what you comment on or post lives on forever. Even when you take it down, it’s likely someone has a copy or screenshot of it. Social media never forgets.

When we work with clients on social media, we tell them that whatever they post on social media should be done with thought, respect and consideration. It’s perfectly reasonable to enter a discussion, dialogue or debate to disagree. But imagine if what you wrote was run across a jumbotron screen or published on the front page of a national newspaper – would you be proud or ashamed? Not just of what you said, but also how you said it and how you engaged with others. Sometimes, we need to be the “grown-up” if a conversation turns nasty or aggressive – to respectfully stand up for what is right or, if appropriate, to disengage.

This isn’t just professional advice; it’s personal advice too. Be careful out there. Your reputation is at risk.

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On Tuesday, I saw an announcement that the Toronto Star, the largest daily newspaper in Canada, has laid off 60 people – most from the newsroom/editorial side of the paper. This unexpected mass layoff is devastating news for the individuals involved, for journalism in Canada, and for organizations who use media relations and publicity to raise brand awareness, to tell their story, to humanize their business, and to show how they are a good corporate citizen and member of their community.

Here in the AHA office, we feel terrible for the people who lost their jobs. Not only did I work in the world of journalism for many years, everyone on the AHA team interacts with journalists on a daily basis as a part of our job. These people are our friends and our colleagues and we strongly believe that journalists are a crucial part of a well-functioning society. This is devastating news – and it comes on top of so many layoffs over the past five years. It is clear that something has to change and a journalism 2.0 industry needs to be created – because the old business approach isn’t working.

There are times when I feel like I am a broken record about this topic. With newsrooms and opportunities for media coverage shrinking at a drastic rate, organizations need to step up and tell their own stories through blogs, social media and brand journalism. The opportunity for proactive, positive media coverage is so small these days and many of the best media outlets for this kind of coverage have shifted to a more sponsored-content approach. Here, you pay as a “sponsor” or “partner” to be on their show or included in a promotional article. We used to call them advertorials – now they just appear as editorial coverage, even though they are not produced with the same journalistic integrity as would happen if there wasn’t money involved.

Creating a great website – an online destination for your stakeholders, your customers, clients or other interested parties to learn more about your organization, your culture, your products or services – is an important component of your marketing communications outreach. And having the articles, the videos, the social media content and the blogs produced by professionals is key. Well-written and professionally produced content will engage the people who visit your site, it will entertain and inform, it will help to build a relationship between you and that person, and it will move them to action.

Profiles of the people who come to work at your organization every day, videos of your community’s participation and support, Q&A sessions with your senior team… there are so many opportunities to engage and create positive relationships, to build trust with your customers or clients, and to showcase who you are as a human being, as a good corporate citizen, and as a member of the community. Now you can reach out and ask for feedback and input. You can join conversations and discussions relevant to your industry and your organization and learn what your stakeholders like or don’t like about what you are doing. (And believe me, you can learn a lot about opportunities from actually listening to what people don’t like.)

I have faith that journalism will find its place in this 24/7 wired world, but it won’t be for a few years – maybe even a decade or so. Until then, you had better start telling your own story.

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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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dreamstime_xs_49756552I am a student of human behavior. I people watch wherever I am – in meetings, at coffee shops, in airports, on the ferry, in waiting rooms and in reception areas. I am always interested in how people act in public, when they think no one is watching. It is always interesting to see who is considerate and who isn’t. And I’m not talking about being a doormat here. Polite, considerate and courteous people can – and do – communicate when they are unhappy with something or are upset with someone’s actions. We just do it in a way that helps to manage the process in a more positive manner.

Being polite, considerate and courteous is second nature to me. I was taught to say please and thank you and to take other peoples’ feelings into consideration. My parents were sticklers for this. And it has served me well in both my personal and professional lives. It helps to build positive relationships with clients, partners, journalists and, of course, my fabulous AHA colleagues. I know that I have been given opportunities, had introductions made for me, and had doors opened because of these interpersonal skills.

I recently had two very different experiences that highlight the power of this. The first one was with a former client who asked for a proposal for a proactive marketing communications campaign from us. We sent over the proposal and he e-mailed back thanking me for it and saying he had a couple of urgent matters on his plate and would get back to me in a few days. A few days went by and he e-mailed again saying: “I haven’t forgotten about you; it’s just a bit hairy here right now. I promise I will get back to you by the end of the week about your proposal.” He was considerate and made the effort to reach out and acknowledge that we had a proposal in with him and that he hadn’t had a chance to review it yet. This is the type of client we want to work for – someone who sees us as partners and treats us with respect.

The other experience was completely the opposite. I was asked to sit on the board of a high-profile, national organization as co-communications director. This is a volunteer board and the organization wants to completely rebrand itself in 2016. That meant a huge amount of work on my part. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to manage the amount of time and effort that it would take and asked a few questions about it. I had to follow up several times and, eventually, a phone call was set up with three other board members. We spoke for about an hour. I thanked them for their time and told them I would get back to them within 48 hours about whether I felt I could fulfil the demands of this role. Within 24 hours, I knew that, as much as it would have been an interesting experience, it was too much to take on with everything that we have going on here at AHA. I sent out an e-mail thanking the chair and the board members for considering me, but that I had to decline because I didn’t feel that I could make the type of time commitment that was necessary. I wished them well but heard nothing back from anyone – no response at all. Thinking that perhaps my e-mail had gone into their junk folders, I resent. That was three months ago and I still haven’t received a response.

Interestingly enough, I had a colleague ask me if I could recommend someone for a pretty lucrative contract that was right up the alley of one of the board members I had e-mailed. Given that client service and communication was a key element of this project and I had seen firsthand that he wasn’t great at that – he couldn’t even be bothered to respond to my e-mail – I didn’t feel comfortable recommending him for the job. It’s funny how that works.

Please, thank you, if you have time, I really appreciate this… There are so many phrases that make life easier. It sounds so small, but basic courtesy is a valuable skill. I know that being polite, considerate and courteous has positively affected my career and my personal life. And it’s really not hard to do. Take the time today to be considerate and courteous to the people you work with and to the people you share your life with. I promise you, it’s worth the effort.

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AHA CEO Ruth Atherley spoke at TEDx BCIT on January 24, 2015. Ruth identified that in this 24/7 connected world, doing the right thing all the time is much easier and more effective than having to face the destruction of your reputation and potentially your business.

Here is her presentation.

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