Choosing grit

January 22, 2018

This past weekend I hiked up Burke Mountain north of Coquitlam with my Scout troop. 

We carried our gear in backpacks up into and well beyond the snowline to our campsite – four hours up the mountain.  Conditions were challenging. We did not turn back.   

At our campsite, we worked with the youth on skills including lighting and cooking on fires in snowy conditions, building emergency shelters with only the gear you have on hand, and camp cooking over stoves. We also had an epic after-dark snowball fight.   

To a person, the youth and adult volunteers came off the mountain yesterday afternoon with a sense of accomplishment. We beat the mountain, and we had fun doing it.   

More important than the winter camping skills the youth worked on are the less tangible ones they will carry with them their entire lives - grit, teamwork, leadership. In challenging conditions.   

Professionally, grit has been a key to my success in PR. Over and over again, my drive to dig deeper and do whatever it takes to beat the mountain has paid off – with more effective campaigns, better media coverage, better writing, and creative solutions no-one else thought of.  

Grit is a choice – that ‘good enough’ just isn’t good enough.  


Don’t waste your time and erode credibility - ask why

October 26, 2017

Good PR ties directly back to a clearly-understood goal.  

Seems simple enough, but in my experience it isn’t always done that way. It’s tempting to do PR just to do PR. Even more problematic, too often PR doesn’t have a seat at the management table and ends up getting marching orders without input nor context.  

A war story. Back in the day TELUS was experiencing outrageous levels of metal theft in Metro Vancouver. On average, more than once a day someone cut down and stole copper cable, taking dozens or even thousands of customers out of service until the cable could be replaced. The price of copper was high, and someone was buying the stolen wire.  

A working team (including PR) was formed. At that table, I asked what would help solve the issue. One answer was that it would help if people would call police if they saw someone up a pole who didn’t seem to belong there.  

Fair enough. That requires awareness. Creating that awareness became a driving goal, a ‘why’ underlying and informing our approach. So, in every interview and release we made sure to deliver a message asking anyone who’d seen something suspicious around utility poles in the area of a cut to call police.  

The message worked well paired with one about the impact on our customers – that the thieves were cutting off 911, and thus putting people’s lives at risk (another time, I’ll write about making sure your story addresses the real, genuine impact of the crisis or event – in this case not the inconvenience or cost to the company, but the risk to people’s lives when 911 was severed).  

It worked. People started calling 911 when they saw something. We achieved our goal.  

We could just have easily treated these cuts as a routine crisis, putting out messaging limited to repair efforts and estimated time of restoral. 

That would have been fine and satisfied the important goal of informing customers about what happened and what we were doing about it, but would have failed to use communications to help solve an important problem.  

I could relate probably hundreds of stories like this one – identify a goal, ask good questions, figure out how communications can be part of the solution, and then do it.   

I ask ‘why’ a lot.  

Too often in my career, I’ve seen communications campaigns proceed without being crafted to meet a goal, and therefore inevitably ineffective and hollow.  

That’s a waste of your time, sure, but more importantly it erodes your credibility with your audiences and leadership. In media, that means a reporter might not answer the phone next time or bury your story because the messaging is bland. With employees, it might mean your internal coms is met with a shrug (if it’s even read). With storytelling, it can result in great-looking video productions that don’t accomplish anything. Critically, your leadership might start questioning why you are at the leadership table.  

So, when you’re asked to undertake a PR project, ask ‘why, what’s the goal.’ Not to (necessarily) challenge the assignment, but to understand what you are being asked to achieve so that you can then craft an approach that best meets that goal and perhaps goes deeper than the first, obvious, objective. Maybe you end up working with leadership to refine the assignment, make it better.  

Better yet, when you see an issue or your organization is setting out to achieve something, figure out how communications can directly support that, and propose it before being asked. That’ll get you a seat at the table faster than anything.  

Ask why.   


Clearing through the tangle of a crisis to focus on the main thing

September 21, 2017

Sometimes, media messaging isn’t the first thing you should be focused on in a crisis, but is where your first instinct will push you. 

Say you’re facing a customer service issue because a service rep, clerk, or even customers themselves were tricked into turning over some information by a clever fraudster – called ‘social engineering’ (the Microsoft scam is a good example). Or, you’ve experienced a larger-scale hack. Maybe you’ve just received word of a terrible service experience and the customer’s threatening to go to media (United Airlines comes to mind).  

Get to work drafting media messaging and stand ready for interviews, right? Maybe.  

Spending that first critical hour drafting media messaging may be the right call, but more often then not you’re better off spending your time focused on another audience – making sure the main thing is the main thing, as it were.  With any service issue, reaching out to relevant customers fast and effectively can actually keep the issue out of media altogether because you’ve eliminated the reason for people to call a reporter. At the least, it should reduce the impact of any media coverage. I’ve never seen media criticize a company for reaching out to customers too quickly and effectively when the worst happens, but a slow response? Over and over again.  

As a communicator, it might be your job to make sure the company does this effectively, and fast, by advocating for a new approach – a legalistic, jargon-rich form letter two days later isn’t going to cut it, so argue for immediate direct outreach by phone or even in person if the situation demands.  

Your next audience may be employees in relevant departments. Rumours spread fast in working teams, and people who take pride in their work are going to take customer-impacting issues personally. As rumours become ‘fact’ someone may speak to the wrong person, decide to become a whistleblower, or put something up in social media. A straightforward, informative email or team meetings can stop misinformation from becoming fact and quiet anxiety. 

It’s always a good practice to prepare media messaging in a crisis, and be ready to effectively take media calls (a topic for another day). But, it’s not always the first thing that needs your finite bandwidth and should not be your default ‘main thing’ in every crisis. Take a moment to think, identify your actual primary audiences and do the hard work of reaching out to them first.  

It’s harder work, sure, but a whole lot more effective.   


Calming crisis

September 7, 2017

Earlier this summer a contact called me when they were the subject of unfounded professional criticism on LinkedIn. The attack was emotional, and my contact was looking for help responding. 

Instead, we took about five minutes to look at the post together. We saw the poster regularly went on tirades, that fewer than a dozen people had commented or liked the attack, that none of the posters were in my contact’s network, and that the pace of comments was already slowing. The critical decision-maker for us was that the poster had failed to tag my contact in his post, so it wasn’t visible to my contact’s network.  

We decided to hold off responding, but monitored the post in case the situation changed. The post gathered only a few more responses, and we let the matter drop without impact.  

Had we responded before taking the few minutes required to understand these key factors we’d have created a crisis where none really existed.   

While a rapid response is often critically important and key to any good crisis communications planning, making statements that later prove false or wading in rashly will make things far worse than they need to be.   

We can all think of a dozen examples that illustrate the point.  

So how do you respond rapidly but avoid digging a deeper hole for yourself? I’ve found a really simple four-step approach works well – inform, research, respond, and report.  · 

  • Inform – Let the key people in your organization know something’s happening, and what your next steps are. Draw in key people so you’re not running solo. The approach will vary by organization, but the key is to have an established system that’s both fast and familiar.   · 
  • Research – Know what you know and (critically) what you don’t know. Never go out with speculation or the best-case scenario – you’ll be proven wrong every time. If you need a bit of time to research, then let your audiences know you’re on it and will get back to them.  
  • Respond – Be genuine, and use data judiciously.   · 
  • Report – Let people in your organization know what happened, and learn from it for next time.   

This process can take a few minutes or stretch out in a repeated cycle over days or weeks. Either way, such a simple framework is easy to use when the heat is on, creating enough structure to ensure we’re not acting rashly or going out with bad information.  

One last point. To make this work effectively in a business requires having already earned a seat at the management table so you are there for the critical conversations in a crisis, and putting some simple processes in place ahead of time.   


Looking back at forks in the trail

August 4, 2017

When hiking, it’s a simple but effective trick to take a few steps past any trail intersection you walk through and then pause, turn around, and take a moment to commit the scene to memory. That way, when you are hiking back out you will have clarity on how to get home.  

Human instinct (hubris perhaps?) tells us it will be obvious which trail to take when we come back this way later because we hiked in on it, but forks in the trail tend to look a lot different when you look back at them. 

Not a bad practice when you are wrapping up a PR campaign, either. After taking a few steps past a decision, take a quick look back to commit the path taken to memory – and just as importantly the trails not taken.  

In my own career, I have found that sitting around the proverbial campfire after a campaign to think about the paths taken and those we decided against has helped me refine my craft and stay ahead of the changing communications landscape. It’s required a willingness to admit mistakes in the paths taken and make changes going forward. That isn’t always easy, but has ensured the next decisions were better, made from a stronger, more informed and thoughtful position. Importantly, it’s ensured paths were not being taken out of habit because they used to work, but that we were always adjusting course as conditions evolved.  

Turning around to look at junctions passed has become as much of a habit in my work as it has on the hiking trial.  


Finding PR lessons while planning for a camping trip

June 26, 2017

Since striking out on my own a couple of months ago, I’ve naturally been thinking a lot about the practice of public relations. 

I stumbled upon a fun framework for communications planning and strategy while preparing for our first backpacking excursion with the entire family.

Bear with me for a moment.  

The trip was this past weekend – one night at Strike Lake in Manning Park. We’d never been there, but found a reasonable amount of information online. We knew the campsite is a couple of hours in on foot over interesting but easy terrain. Perfect for the kids. We weren’t sure how far away from camp water would be, or what facilities were at the site. So, our planning reflected that.  

So, how are backpacking and PR alike? 

When you’re getting ready for an overnight backpacking trip it’s obviously a good idea to give some thought to what you pack, because you have to carry it all and you can’t pop to the store for something you forgot.  

During our planning we set out the basics first – sleeping bags and mats, shelter, food, and the like. The specifics of backpacking basics vary somewhat based on trail conditions and terrain, how long you’re going for, the weather forecast and time of year, food preferences, and who’s coming, but the broad strokes are constant. 

Once the basics were in place, we consulted with the kids about what extra or ‘luxury’ items to bring. We wanted to set the children up for a successful, fun trip and the trail is an easy one, so we decided to pack a few things that were not essential but increased the fun and comfort quotients – favourite treats, a lightweight hammock, a book each for the kids, and our little fold-up camping stools. My wife and I carried the group gear and this added less than a couple of kilograms to each of our packs so was very doable for the conditions.  

We made the decision to leave behind other ‘luxury’ items because the trip was short, the weather looked good, and our menu didn’t demand them.  

In other words, we thought through the camp and made some informed decisions about what to bring based on a host of factors specific to the adventure.  

In hindsight, it would have been a good idea to bring a couple of additional activities. We hadn’t counted on the kids getting a bit bored after camp was set up - a deck of cards and cribbage board would have done the trick. A good learning for next time.  

Packing my bag, it occurred to me that in many ways planning for a PR campaign is similar to planning for a backpacking trip. Whether you’re running a media campaign, managing a crisis in social media, or communicating a difficult change to employees and shareholders, you’d better take care of the basics first. If you don’t get the basics right your experience could be a miserable one – even dangerous.  

While the details vary depending on the specific circumstances, from where I’m sitting those PR basics include making sure you have a compelling, well-informed and genuine narrative and know how you are going to communicate it in the key channels demanded by the situation.  

If you’re issuing a media release, make sure to have a well-spoken and informed spokesperson readily available. Otherwise, you might as well bring the ingredients to make a camp stew, but no stove and pot.  

In a crisis get a satisfying initial message in place immediately – and know ahead of time how you will effectively deliver that message. Then, follow through on the promise to look into the situation and dig deep to ensure your next messaging is based on a lot more information and speaks to how your organization is going to address the issue. Test the messaging to make sure it’s genuine, vernacular, and tackles the issue head-on. If you don’t know something, don’t speculate. On day 2, bland, distancing corporate-speak; ill-informed statements; or simply repeating what you said the day before - well, you might as well head to Strike Lake pulling a carry-on suitcase. It’s not going to go well. 

Once the basics are in place, give some thought to the extras, keeping in mind you have to carry them – or in PR’s case be able to support them throughout the campaign, crisis, or change. Do you want to add sponsored content, op-eds or editorial boards to your media campaign? Should you look at adding Facebook engagement and monitoring to the work you’re already doing in Twitter – or maybe a blog? What about adding town hall meetings to your well-crafted emails to employees about a merger or operational efficiency program? 

All good ideas, but only once the basics are taken care of.  

Got the basics in place? Think through the specifics of the situation, decide which extras both suit the adventure given the unique mix of variables in play and can be carried without adding more weight than you can comfortably handle over the terrain you’re taking on, and then (importantly) get on with it.   

Make sure to also account for the unknowns. Be ready to learn lessons.  

Of course, pre-planning both your basic and extra elements rather than throwing it together as you’re rushing out the door will make for a much better adventure – in PR or backpacking.

BTW, the trip was fantastic. We’re already planning a return to Strike Lake.