Backpack to Briefcase: A Panel on Communications, PR, and Social Media

I've been busy collaborating with the Political Science department and the Career Centre at the University of Toronto to organize and moderate a panel discussion on breaking into the communications, PR, and social media industry. It's going to be a wonderful event with a stellar line up of panelists who will share their insights on success. Following the panel discussion and Q&A, light refreshments will be served and we can get our networking on!

So if you're a student or a recent graduate toying with the idea of a career in this space, register here and join us

Date: Wednesday, March 27
Time: 6- 8 p.m.
Location: Political Science Conference Room, Sidney Smith Hall (3rd floor), 100 St. George Street.


Ainka Jess is a Senior Communications Officer at the CBC in Toronto. With over a decade of communications and broadcast television experience, she was recruited to manage the communications and social media strategy for a candidate in the 2011 Ontario Provincial Elections. A woman who wears many hats, Ainka was the first producer at Sun Media to launch and produce the inaugural multicultural segment on Canoe Live. Her love of current affairs and reputation as a social media star lead her to work with TEDxToronto in 2012 as Communications Lead.

Carolyn Van 

Carolyn Van is the co-founder of thirdocean, a social media communications company as well as a mentor and advisor to various technology startups, innovation accelerators and post-secondary institutions.

Having always been an early adopter of technologies and Web 2.0 tools and platforms, Carolyn has been weaving social media in to marketing programs well before brand pages, self service ads, share functions, and the array of interactive features we see now were ever introduced. She has led the successful development and execution of digital communications, social media marketing and experiential marketing programs for brands including Scotiabank, Rogers Wireless and Drake International. 

Michael Edwards

Michael Edwards leads Navigator's digital practice and specializes in developing integrated digital strategies to achieve client objectives. He develops and executes strategies for companies and organizations that want to speak to their ideal audience through digital channels. Michael works with brands, corporations, not-for-profit organizations and political parties as a partner in identifying strategic opportunities and managing online reputations. 

As a Senior Consultant at High Road Communications, Rayanne supports the digital team in social media marketing and community management strategic counsel. Rayanne primarily works on projects with TELUS, Microsoft, and Second Harvest. Before joining the team at High Road, Rayanne was the lead for all social media, community and word of mouth marketing at FreshBooks, the number one cloud accounting specialist for small business owners. She’s also very active in the local social media community, spending her time turning online into offline relationships through attending and managing community-organized events.

Roots & Shoots: A Social Media Workshop with the Jane Goodall Institute

I quietly snuck into the James Room at the Delta Chelsea downtown where I was giving a social media workshop for the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada's Youth Leadership Council (YLC). The small but energized youth were in the middle of a networking activity assigned to them when I first walked in but I was happily greeted by a friend and old co-worker of mine from Journalists for Human Rights, Carissa. We'd worked closely together giving workshops on how to use social media to spread human rights awareness and it was nice to reconnect again.

The room was filled with the 12 dynamic members of the YLC who act as ambassadors of JGI's Roots & Shoots program, a network of youth creating positive change in the environment and fostering respect and compassion for all living things. We jumped right into the workshop by discussing the significance and magnitude of social media and how to communicate effectively on these platforms. Talking social media to youngins is one of my favorite things to do because they just get it. They are the digital natives and our conversation yesterday proved that.  I was struck by their depth of understanding and critical thinking when interacting with social media.

One of my activities for the group was to deconstruct Facebook posts from various non-profit organizations and to determine which ones effectively engaged their audience, which one's didn't and how those one could be improved. I was happily surprised when the group began debating what exactly constituted an engaging post anyway. Does a "like" or a comment constitute deep enough engagement? Or does it just represent another classic case of slacktivism (or as one participant referred to it: clicktivism)?

It's a question I've struggled with while working for different NPOs and it's one that I don't readily have an answer for. For NPOs (and for businesses too), a "like" doesn't really mean much if it doesn't translate into some sort of deeper action...whether it's a donation, signing up to get involved, or spreading the word and raising awareness. Unfortunately, most interactions on social media are shallow acts under the guise of true and deep activism/involvement.

I showed a couple of posts from NPOs that encouraged their audience to "like" a post or tag themselves in photos (you'll catch 'em in the slideshow above) and one participant expressed her disdain for "cutesy" and "cheap" posts like that. I agree with her and was so happy that someone brought this up. But I do think that NPOs need to find a balance between these kinds of posts and serious messages with specific and impactful calls to action (like donating, volunteering, etc.). Although it might not seem to mean much, the act of "liking" a post can have important ripple effects. That post could show up on a friend's Facebook feed and lead them to click on that organizations' page and learn more about their projects. Maybe that friend is someone who actually wants to get more deeply involved and ends up signing up to volunteer for a local initiative. It's not easy to track or measure things like that but leveraging word of mouth and increasing brand visibility is one of the key opportunities that NPOs really need to take advantage of. 

All in all, it was really a lively workshop with a lot of healthy debate and valuable insights to draw from. It was refreshing to see a group of youth critically assess social media and consider ways to make something as seemingly simple as a Facebook posting into a conduit for deeper social engagement. Looking forward to seeing what the YLC gets up to this coming year!

Follow Roots & Shoots on Facebook and Twitter.

University of Toronto's Communications Summit

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to go back to my alma mater, the University of Toronto, and speak on the panel for their first Communications Summit. The event brought together senior staff responsible for communicating with students, particularly those in their first year at the university. It was an effort to break down the silos between the many different departments and collaboratively create a strategic communications roadmap for the upcoming year. The summit was largely a response to a report released by the Council on Student Experience in July 2010, which found that many students didn't really feel a strong sense of support or community on campus (and as a recent grad, let me tell you...I can attest to that). 

"NSSE results indicate [U of T] students perceive the institution as less supportive in meeting their academic and social needs and experience lower quality relationships with staff, faculty and other students than those reported by students at peer institutions." -- In Their Own Words: Understanding the Undergraduate Student Experience at the University of Toronto

I was asked to speak about my work and research with Barry Wellman and Lee Rainie on networked creation and how it relates to the university as well as my own experience as a former student. And as someone working in marketing and communications, it was fascinating to get a behind-the-scenes look at how this all works in the university setting. I'm used to working with smaller, more collaborative and agile businesses and oganizations and it was really interesting to see how bigger, more bureaucratic institutions are dealing with and adapting to (or not) the changing networked media landscape.

Summit panelists: Theo, Coey, Chirag, and moiOne of the things that really resonated with me on that day was what keynote speaker and marketer, Max Valiquette, noted and that is that universities need to start thinking of themselves as brands. And that means more than just providing a "product"--in this case a public good: education--but also an experience...both online and offline. Many of the most successful businesses provide an experience for its customers (just think Starbucks) and there's no reason that universities should think of themselves as fundamentally different from such companies. The university is a profit-making institution with a very clear "customer". And if anything, universities actually have a leg up over other businesses in that they have direct and complete access to all of their customers. Failing to communicate your message effectively when you have not just all the personal and contact information of your audience (phone, email, schedule, address,, actually everything), but also an audience that is actually interested in what you have to say? Well, that's almost unforgiveable.

Throughout the day, there were so many questions as to which communication platform was the best to reach out to the student population. Was it Facebook? Twitter? Email? And if it was email, did students prefer long messages that outlined everything or shorter notes with links for more information? Valiquette said something akin to email being dead and irrelevant, but some students in attendance indicated otherwise saying that they actually preferred email as their primary mode of communication. Conflicting answers that didn't really give the staff much to work with.

The problem here is that many of the staff members at U of T are approaching this with assumptions about students and the way they receive their information. But after talking to many of them, I discovered that none of those assumptions were actually being tested and confirmed. No one was looking at the data. Instead of running blindly with these assumptions, why not test them and learn with empirical data whether or not those assumptions are actually true? For instance, what are the open rates and click through rates of their emails? Which platforms were the largest referrers to their site? Looking at this concrete, empirical evidence would give better answers to their questions of which communication platforms are the most effective. Imagine all the time, money, and effort that could be saved if time was spent looking at this data and iterating properly.

The Communications "Roadmap". Photo by @tkenderdine

It's a huge undertaking but there are universities (Harvard, for instance) that are really keeping up with the times and communicating in ways that truly resonates with its students. The student population is one of the most natural communities out there and it's a very social demographic that is eager to participate in this networked world. I know it's easier said than done but U of T needs to start thinking more like a startup and experiment, test and retest, and iterate quickly (rinse and repeat!). They need to hack their own institution and disrupt their traditional and bureaucratic structure and create a space for innovation and collaboration. Failing to do so may mean the risk of becoming those archaic, irrelevant ivory towers that universities are so often accused of. And as a proud alumni, I sure hope that won't be the case!

Check out my storify for some of the conversation taking place online during the event.