My recent radio production: Life journey of Asian Canadians

In my recent radio show, I sat down with Major Samson Young, a Laotian Canadian, as he talked about his journey from Laos to Canada as a refugee decades ago, his experience serving in Bosnia and Congo as a part of the Canadian Armed Force and his philosophy of overcoming life challenges. Very touching and inspiring story.

Definitely worth listening:


Photo Caption: Majoy Samson Young (man with blue hat) serving in Congo


Community Outreach: Design hands-on activities to engage your target audience

80514963-4538-4228-A154ECA6F7350EAEThis is an often-asked question in communications outreach – how to get the target audience engaged in my initiative? Although there is no definite answer to this, I’ll highlight one main area that is often played in the game: creating hands-on engagement activities for the target audience.

To get target audience’s attention means to make them care about a certain issue. One-way communication (media exposure, website information, brochures and flyers) is important to widely deliver the messages. Two-way communication involves community engagement, which encourage people to take action. Both are important. This blog will emphasize how can two-way communication engage target audience.

Before selecting communications channels and starting the promotions, one needs to ensure that key contents are interesting, exciting and easy to understand. Contents need to have the potential of triggering community actions. For example, the Tree Ottawa campaign has a successful key message: plant 1 million trees in Ottawa by the year 2017. The starting verb “plant” makes people wanting to plant trees. Planting 1 million trees is exciting and requires as many Ottawans as possible to get involved. Lastly, the message is very easy to digest.

With good contents, now it’s important to think how to inform and engage the audience. Two-way communication is a proactive approach. The organizers have to design hands-on activities for the audience in order to get them connected. People care about things that relate to them.

The beauty of communication is to design and run effective hands-on activities to get people engaged. A good idea values millions of dollars. It is also important that these activities have a word-of-mouth value, in which people who have participated are willing to spread out the message to others in their network. One of the hands-on activities that Tree Ottawa has designed is “become a tree ambassador”. They recruit 150 influential people in Ottawa as tree ambassadors and ask each of them to plant a tree on their property. These ambassadors would then inform their community networks to support tree planting and Tree Ottawa. This is a very smart activity to 1. engage socially active Ottawans  2. tap into these tree ambassadors’ network and engage more people to get involved. Good initiative indeed.

One classical activity to engage audience that I really like is volunteer appreciation party. It is essential to thank every single person who choose to contribute to build the initiative. A thank-you party with food, drinks and music is a casual way to make contributors feel valuable, thus continue to volunteer their time. They may not only spread the message into their community of the good thing he/she is supporting, they may also bring their friends to jump on board.

Again, community outreach is a proactive approach. It requires organizers to go INTO the community and bring hands-on activities to people of that community. For example, if your target audience is youth, go into schools with all your activities materials, collaborate with teachers and get students engaged in the activities. For Tree Ottawa, a good idea is to engage schools across Ottawa-Carleton District School Board with a “plant- a-tree afternoon” by educating students with tree planting and get them to plant trees in their school property on an sunny afternoon.

Last but not least – food, drinks and music. Trust me, people always prefer going to events that provide food. People hope to have some food at events they attend, no matter how much food there are. You will be surprised how much attractions can food gain for your activities. If the budget is too tight for food, at least get some drinks for folks.

Communicating for your organization on-line: Build golden content, then make conversations happen

website_hubIn the world of Internet, two weapons are essential for business: a good-looking website and popular social media channels. When hiring a web developer, he/she is usually able to build whatever you want on-line. Twitter and Facebook is also a time-consuming but essential tool to forge conversations on different trends. With the awareness of these tools, what and how should an organization talk online?

I recently read an article on nonprofit management called Working Wikily. Author Searce, Kasper and Grant talk about how to fit web communications into organizations’ communications structure. Internet, especially social media, decentralizes the communications structure. The article highlights Environmental Defense Fund (EDF)’s innovative direction on web communication, “forget message control, go forth and engage with your stakeholders.”

“Forget message control” sounds like an utopia for working level, but not for the executives, especially in big, bureaucratic organizations. The question here is, how can we satisfy both sides and bring out the best of the organization? In other words, how to accurately communicate key messages meanwhile engage the public to voice their opinions?

The article Working Wikily briefly answers the question: combining top-down and bottom-up. To put this into my own words, I understand top-down as the website and social media as bottom-up. Successful web communication strategy should forge two efforts: high-quality and interesting content that communicate your organization’s messages; 2. stimulate relevant conversations on social media channels while driving people to the website and find out more. It is a fish-and-water relationship between these two tools in which they can never be separated from each other while executing the strategy.

Website (the top-down approach): Attract audience with interactive content

The very first step is to have interactive content on the organization’s website. The elementary information such as “About Us”, “Our Mandate” and “Staff” should be clear and centralized that state the framework. What more important is the regularly updated content with educational values so that your audience find interesting to see. Create blogs and write insights on your organization’s expertise on a regular basis. Make videos and infographics to visually communicate your message to the public; we live in a society in which people prefer to see images more than long texts. These contents should have high potential of being shared on social media channels. The goal of creating web content, is to keep the public updated and interested with valuable content that your organization can bring to them.

By building great website content, organizational messages can still be centralized. The contents should carry out from staffs who can speak on behalf of the organization. Website is an opportunity to get your messages across. However, boring contents that don’t appeal to the target audience are valueless and are rarely shared on social media.

Social media (the bottom-up approach): Encourage conversations on relevant messages  

Now, your organization has talked enough on the website, it’s time for your audience to shine. Sadly, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram are used as promotional tools by many organizations, as a place to showcase their services and products. This is in fact an mistaken mindset. Social media is a place for endless ideas exchanges. General public needs to contribute their opinions in order to get the ball rolling. Rather than disseminating message, the organizers’ role on social media is to regularly start an idea that aligns with the organization’s services and encourage people to share their opinions. Meanwhile, always include visuals and link to the organization’s web content and encourage audience to explore more about the organization.

This is where messages should be decentralized. As written in the Working Wikily article, “forget message control, go forth and engage with your stakeholders.” As long as the posts are relevant and uncontroversial, your social media engagement should be as creative as possible.

Does your organization’s web communications strategy combines top-down and bottom-up?

Communications lessons that I learnt from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

rita-ora-ice-bucket-challenge-2014-billboard-650x430If there is an Oscar Award in the global communications industry, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge would definitely win the crown this year. This social media campaign did not only create a media storm around the world, it also raised $100 million in one month from over three million donors.

Now the ice bucket challenge trend has ended. I still often think of this giant communications success and would like to summarize some main elements that I have learnt from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

The initial idea of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is as simple as its title reads – dumping a bucket of ice water on someone’s head in order to promote awareness of ALS. People can nominate others to do the challenge in 24 hours. If the nominee does not complete the challenge, he/she will have to donate to the ALS Association for ALS research. It’s a simple but interesting game. This campaign went viral on social media from July to August of this year with the participation of many celebrities, politicians and public figures; ALS Association has raised donation amount  36 times more than its results from last year.

So what made this social media campaign succeed?

Contents are endlessly generated by audience themselves

People watch it, do it, then nominate someone else to do it. Content are generated through endless referrals. The campaigners use the idea of ice bucket challenge to raise awareness for ALS research. Popularity of ALS association increased as more people upload videos of themselves doing the ice bucket challenge and nominate someone they know to do it. The campaign cost is very low, as the audience are willing to produce content by themselves, promote it, and get others in their network to join.

This reminds me of my professor’s words, “as social entrepreneurs, we don’t go into the community to solve their problems. We get the community to solve their own problems.” In the case of the ALS ice bucket challenge, as the ice-water-dumping idea is thrown out, it is not the campaigners who create the videos, but the online audience who create their own videos and encourage others to do the same thing. If not, they will need to donate. The power of the general public is tremendous.

What does it take to make people wanting to generate content and spread the words? The answer is very simple: a cool idea that engages anyone to participate (in this case, the ice bucket challenge), and social media tools such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

Celebrity presence

Countless celebrities across the globe did the ice bucket challenge. Entertainment stars; politicians; millionaires…you name it. These people are role models in the public eyes, they create star effects that make people follow their fashion trends. People want to see them doing the bizarre things like dumping ice water on their head and shake in the cold. People mock this action because it becomes a cool thing to do.

For celebrities, the ALS ice bucket challenge helps them brand a positive image as this action is for cancer research – a good cause. For the public, people get entertained by watching videos of celebrities doing the challenge. For the ALS Association campaigners, celebrity presence stimulates the campaign popularity growth thus reach even surpass their donation goal. The campaign with celebrity presence creates win-win-win situation.

Again, a good communication idea with the use of social media tools shine big.

Successful multimedia presence

Most people see social media such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter as the communications channel that makes the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge succeed however ignore the power of media in creating this popularity. Mainstream media is in fact the one who started to disseminate the message at the very early period of this campaign. On June 30, personalities of NBC’s program Morning Drive performed a live, on-air Ice Bucket Challenge. On the same day, the media reported American golfer Chris Kennedy did the challenge and nominated his cousin in New York. This then became popular around the U.S. and the world.

During the campaign period, public figures’ ice bucket challenge and some challenges under special occasions have not just gone viral on social media, mainstream media such as TV and newspaper also reported them, which constantly stimulated the trend. It is a successful, multimedia strategy that the campaigners created.

Great timing of the whole campaign

Timeliness is key to social media campaigns. A trend can be extremely popular at a short period of time and die out the next. A long and dragging social media campaign is rarely a successful one as the audience get tired of the trend. This campaign captured a good one-month period of popularity and took over the media empire. Videos, images, social media posts and news reports about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge were created non-stop from July to August, when the hot temperature was perfect for dumping ice on the head. It ended right at the end of summer and rarely anyone does the challenge after August.

Was one-month too short for a campaign to be effective? The answer here is no, it was an intense month of content producing and sharing; more importantly, the ALS Association raised $100 million on a timeline of July 29 to August 29, which surpasses its fundraising goal. Was this planned by the campaigners? Yes.  At the end of the summer, the association published a thank-you letter on their website, which it defined the time measurement as from July 29 to August 29.

The soul of the game is a good cause

One thing that is essential and needs to be reinforced throughout every social media content produced, is the purpose of the ALS ice bucket challenge, which is to fund ALS research and help ALS patients beat this terrible disease. Without this aim, the ice bucket activity is just a meaningless action of dumping water on one’s head. Those who forgot to mention “help ALS research” during their video, especially public figures’, can get back fired.

There are other things to praise about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge campaign. I see the five elements described in this blog as the main reasons that make this campaign shine. These are definitely handy when communications professionals design social media campaign.

Face-to-face conversation still the best form of communication

6a00d83452408569e20133f545d9a2970b-320wiIt was a working Wednesday in the office. I was chasing down a poster from a colleague for a big event. No reply from e-mail. No answer from phone call. The frustration finally drove me to go to her office, which is ridiculously, only two floors down from mine.

She was there in office, with her desk full of documents. “Sorry I was busy,” she said, “sure, feel free to take the poster.” Problem solved, only by face-to-face conversation.

I bet everyone has experienced things like this. We are living in a society full of communications technology. We are so used to reach one another through electronic devices that we tend to ignore or fear of face-to-face conversation.

A communications professor of mine’s take on “common sense” really inspired me. He said that we sometimes ignore common sense because they are the basics, and maybe easy to achieve. However, it is the practice of common sense that takes us to success. Face-to-face conversation is this common sense in communications that we should not ignore.

Here are four main benefits that we cannot neglect from face-to-face conversation:

– Trigger creativity and inspirations. Many great ideas are born during casual face-to-face conversations between two individuals. Again, the showing of six senses raise the effectiveness of presentation. The successful community builder Paul Born found his ideas of poverty reduction by having various conversations within the communities, seeking real solutions from local residents. As he says in the book Community Conversations, “collectively, these conversations have now reduced poverty in the lives of more than 202,000 families.” The keyword to make him successful? Face-to-face conversation.

“I love conversations – especially big, messy and purposeful ones.” It’s an inspiring quote from Paul Born.

 – Creates trust and honesty. Face-to-Face conversation engages six senses; we would understand one another better not just by the words they speak, but also their facial expression and body language. This direct, personal interaction without any technological pipelines create trust and a sense of closeness. In addition, eye-contact is the best way to build trust, which is the key to succeed in many business settings.

– Creates work efficiency. Through face-to-face conversation, the message you convey directly go through the other person’s ears, and vice versa. This eliminates misunderstanding created through communication using electronic devices. It can also save you tremendous amount of time from sending e-mails back and forth. Need to get a point across effectively? Go and have a face-to-face conversation with those to want to influence.

– Brings happiness. It is that simple. People share laughter and emotion during face-to-face conversations. Unlike digital communication where one isolates him/herself in a room and looking at a screen for hours, face-to-face conversation allows participants to really feel one another. This is never a lonely task because you are accompanied by others.

Sadly, these values of face-to-face conversation is gradually submerged by the epic digital communication flow. We live in a “global village” as Marshall McLuhan refers to, in which electronic technology such as television, radio and internet connects the globe together. Today, we have e-mail, social media, text message…there are too many options to communicate with each other. When in need to communicate with a person, the first thing that comes to mind may not be having a face-to-face conversation but rather sending a Facebook message. Many of us fear to approach the contact in person as we falsely believe that electronic device can soothe the conversation process and lighten the emotional factors. We learn to hide behind the electronic curtain.

I never want to bombard the “global village” and various convenience that technology brings to us in communication. Social media is fantastic by connect people around the world, and open the door for us to know one another. However, face-to-face conversation is still the best way to communicate and to get effective result.

Why not triggering face-to-face conversations using technology? Setting up a Facebook event page and invite people for coffee-break or public consultation in the coffee lounge at the       corner of street A would be a way to do it.

Let’s make buffet together: understanding group work

encourage-team-workEvery organization expands its workers as they become bigger and more successful, which means more group works for every workers within that organization. This is a healthy sign.

Working as a group can bring significant benefits but meanwhile is a challenging task. Although there are difficulties when accomplishing group works as people try to fit their own squares of thoughts into the big group circle, success can only be achieved through groups not solely individuals.

Benefits of working as a group:

– Each and every contribution adds brightness to the whole work

In a group setting, every person contribute. We all bring the best of ourselves onto the big table. I’d like to think of group work as a pot luck party. Everyone brings a dish of their own and share it with the whole group so that we have a huge buffet of delicious food.

– The work will be done faster as we share tasks

Have you ever observed a group of ants moving things? I’m always amazed by how fast they bring one big piece forward as a group. Together, they walk way faster than walking by themselves. None of these ants can bring the big piece back home by themselves. When the piece falls down, they grab it back again together and continue walking.

This should be the spirit of groupwork: it will be done faster as we evenly share the tasks and all contribute to the table.

Group members share joy and challenges together

You are never alone in a group setting. There will be meetings where the group gathers and laugh, argue, being inspired by one another. It feels great when we share the cake of success together at the end. It feels better when we all taste the bitter fail instead of swallowing it alone. After all, it’s group work. Human relationship strengthens as people fight battles together.

Challenges of working as a group:

– we all have our human egos

Every person is creative and unique in nature. We have our own ideas and are all eager to let our own star shine. This sometimes triggers unpleasant arguments as we all want to protect our own ideas and are always trying our best to make them alive in a group.

How to fight this:

We have to first understand that the action of ego protection shows individual fear of being invaded and destroyed. Based on this, we should understand each other’s thoughts better.

In my opinion, three steps to avoid conflicts are:

– Always say it out loud when appreciating a thought. It won’t sound cheesy when just saying “good idea, I like it”;

– Avoid using words like “no” or “that won’t work” when filing disagreement;

– Try to understand others’ thinking path and comment on how to improve his/her idea instead of trying to kill it.

 We freak out when someone doesn’t take responsibility

We have all experienced this at least once in our lives. It is painful when a person stops contributing when still capable of and that others have to carry on his/her work. This is especially unpleasant in a small group setting when every member already takes fairly large amount of activity.

How to fight this:

– Every group member should keep this question in mind throughout the project: Do I feel good when adding my work on top of others when I am still able to get my part done?

– Brief to the group of your progress on a regular basis, let others know where you are at. This shows your honesty and trust to them. Everyone in the group would appreciate this. Also, they are definitely willing to offer a hand if you encounter difficulties.

– Trust each other and the whole project. There is not much to say about this point. Simply trust that others will get the work done and that the whole project will turn out great because we work with fantastic people!

The ability to understand matters to me

I am taking a Communications class with an intelligent professor who is also a successful social entrepreneur. The assignment for the first class is to write about “what matters to you.” Class like this really stimulates students’ creativity.

A flood of ideas came to mind. There are a lot that matter to me. So I was struggling to pick some of my most important values: keep an immense curiosity about people and their stories; maintain my strengths but welcome new challenges; be able to listen, understand and deliver messages effectively; be a better communicator.

After a while, I started to think why these values matter to me, which it brings down the root of all these: understanding the world and others really matters to me.

I started to learn English at the age of eight. “Understand” is the word that appeared in my vocabularies exercise book during the first month. Understanding is an essential ability that everyone can have, but takes life-time to master it.

Some people are good at understanding others and the world better than others. They go through a process of understanding by spending time to observe, listen, feel, and say or write down what they have found. As you may notice, this is an entire process that involves one’s fully attention and participation of six senses. I admire those who practice this process of understanding on a daily-basis; not only that they are willing to give precious time to the world outside them; they invest emotions, also spend tremendous amount of effort to care.

Think about this: What makes you feel when someone says to you, “I really understand your pain?”

This is why the notion of building an understanding among others is always the ethics of many professions. In bioethics, health professionals should always act to the benefits of patients and eliminate harms from illness. Journalists protect victims of a severe accident by not reporting their real names. The root of all these, is to understand others. Understanding should be practiced by every professional and professional-to-be, and universities train people’s understanding to the world and specifically, one area of expertise.

Understanding also involves empathy, which put one in other people’s shoes and goes through their feelings. This is sometimes hard because we are used to live our own way and have built a thinking system of our own. Some call this “unique” and others see it as “selfish”.  Under a world of individuality, the ability to understand others with empathy becomes very precious. And our society really appreciates those who master this skill. For example, people would elect someone whom they think can truly understand their needs.

Many believed that the “I feel your pain” message helped Bill Clinton win the U.S. presidential election. At a fundraising for AIDS event during the campaign period, Clinton said “I feel your pain” on stage in response to an AIDS activist. These four words are so well-delivered to the audience both verbally and through body gestures and facial expressions, that it became the branding message of Clinton and a cliché of him till this date. The key message behind this phrase is that, Clinton is able to understand difficulties that ordinary Americans go through. Political communications strategists these days are pulling all ideas out of their brains to deliver the message of understanding middle class and vulnerable. It is something that the society hugely appreciates.

Understanding creates happiness. Here are some scenarios of understanding that simply make us feel good: listening to others’ stories, considering the situation they are in and giving advice that benefit them. These also show one’s ability to give, and being able to give is a happy thing. On the other hand, most conflicts start from misunderstanding. It happens when two stakeholders preserve their own bubble and fail to consider others’ stands; the negative impacts can be heartbreaking. Think about the number of deaths in Rwandan genocides as the results of conflict between Hutus and Tutsis; the Israel-Gaza conflicts and many other ethnic cleansing. In ordinary living, misunderstanding breaks friendship; relationship and family. It is unpleasant.

Thinking back the important values that I stated at the very beginning and the communications career that I devote to, understanding is the foundation to all these. In the world of communications, understanding target audience’s needs and preference is key to develop content. Knowing target audience’s consuming habits (i.e. the way and time they perceive certain messages) is important when designing communications channels and timing to carry out messages. Communications is about understanding and it matters to me.

If I have 10 years starting now to do anything, I would master my ability to understand others and the world. This helps me enhance my career in communications as understanding is an essential skill of this profession, and more importantly, being a loving person.