From festival founding to communications: IABC Ottawa’s Awelana Akeriwe shares lessons from AfroFest

 Awelana Akeriwe’s accomplishment is one to which few other Ottawa communicators can lay claim: Starting, from scratch, an annual festival that celebrates African culture.

But founding AfroFest, a Regina-based festival, is more than just a unique line on her resume. She says it’s helped her a lot in her communications career.

“With AfroFest I quickly learned that starting a non-profit and putting on an annual event involves a lot of relationship building,” says Akeriwe. “For me, being authentic and making that human connection always worked.”

Building a festival on African pride

Akeriwe, originally from Ghana, has always found pride in her African heritage.

It was what she wanted to share with the rest of her community when she started Regina AfroFest, which debuted in Saskatchewan on July 5, 2014.

The event brings together live music performance, drum and dance, arts and craft, African food and workshops to celebrate Africa’s diversity.

“I’m proud of my African heritage and I wanted to share this rich culture with my community,” she says.

“Plus, with my communications background and interests in public relations, I felt I had what it took to make this happen.”

The event ran in downtown Regina’s Victoria Park for four years before going on hiatus for 2018.

During that time, the festival grew from having a zero-dollar budget to having multiple sponsorships and a recognized brand.

“Bringing this form of educative entertainment and diversifying the festival landscape in Regina has been one of my proudest achievements,” she says.

From AfroFest to TD (and IABC Ottawa)

In her day job, Akeriwe works as a Communications Analyst with TD. She also is a member of IABC Ottawa. A commitment to collaboration has defined her position, helping to bring together diverse teams spread around different locations.

“Our teams are always communicating, brainstorming, problem solving – together,” she says. “We’re always looking at the bigger picture.”

This constant collaboration encourages a culture of continuous learning, she says.

For example: She’s learned to use Canva, a simple design tool to create professional designs – both for internal and external communications. “I’ve been able to grow beyond my comfort zone,” says Akeriwe.

Lessons from AfroFest

Akeriwe says AfroFest has taught her invaluable lessons in her career.

  • Relationship-building counts: Akeriwe says she’s always had a penchant for networking. Founding AfroFest helped her to build on her commitment to connecting with others. “For me, being authentic and making that human connection always worked,” she says.
  • Build a great team: Akeriwe learned this first-hand as chairman of AfroFest’s Board of Directors. “I’ve had to be flexible but also hold on to my values. Honesty and integrity has been at the core of everything I do.”
  • Don’t discount writing skills: Building AfroFest meant grant proposals – a lot of them. “It goes without saying that good writing and editing skills have been highly essential. Seeking a second opinion on my work has always served me well.”
  • It’s never too early to start planning: Akeriwe attributes much of AfroFest’s success to building a strong brand; however, recognizing your target dates and building in sufficient lead times can make planning less onerous. How did the festival do it? 1) By building a business and marketing plan right from the outset 2) maintaining consistent messaging across all channels and 3) building the right relationships.
  • Trust your gut: Akeriwe says this is perhaps the strongest yet subtle revelation she takes from AfroFest. “There’ve been times where I have not hesitated to offer a differing view if I feel the team was not headed in the right direction. It has more often than not paid off.”

A commitment to diversity

Akeriwe has always championed diversity.

And founding AfroFest has only further affirmed to her its benefits.

“Given that we are presenting the cultures of a continent, which in itself is diverse, we’ve made it a point to create partnerships with other community groups and include both Africans and non-Africans in the planning process ― in Africa there is a saying that ‘Together we stand…’ to mean there is strength in diversity,” she says.

“After all, the festival is open to everyone regardless of age or background and so it makes sense to involve as many from our community.”

It’s an approach that would apply to many organizations in communications.

“You’ll be amazed the amount of creative ideas you can gather from a team of people with diverse backgrounds.”

Building a career with the help of IABC Ottawa

Akeriwe joined IABC Ottawa having relocated, to stay connected with other communicators, broaden her network and enhance her communications knowledge.

“For me, it’s a great opportunity to access (members-only resources) relevant materials and stay informed on industry trends,” she says.

Her advice to young communicators?

Networking is important. But so too is focusing your discipline.

“Having a broad knowledge of the profession is great and valuable, but as you progress in your career and because the Communications discipline is very broad with a wide spectrum of different domains,” says Akeriwe. “If you can nail down a specialty of Communications you’re really good at or have a passion for, then do it.”

Connect with Awelana on LinkedIn and Twitter.

A commitment to authenticity: IABC Ottawa profile of Rojen Izzetpanah

Ro Izzetpanah has held many positions in her career. Finance specialist with the Government of Canada. Customer Service Representative for a major national bank. Manager of Marketing for an amateur baseball team.

But what some might call “job hopping” or indecisiveness is actually, for Izzetpanah, reflective of her broader philosophy on marketing communications.

It all comes down to authenticity.

“The further you get from your authentic self the more it can be seen through, and to succeed in communications I think that staying true to a voice, and being able to act in a digital world the same way that you do in real life, earns respect you and allows people to believe in your brand,” says Izzetpanah.

A space for like-minded professionals

Izzetpanah currently works in digital communications with the Senate of Canada and is a member of IABC Ottawa. She says she joined because she wanted to network with other professionals and exchange ideas with like-minded professionals working in working the same space. Since joining she’s found value in the fun events and inspirational speakers. It’s just one part of her unique approach to career-building.

The other half? Her commitment to authenticity.

Finding authenticity

There is no denying that the rise of the internet has been a boon to marketing and communications professionals. There are now more tools than ever available to reach audiences. But to Izzetpanah it’s also changed some interactions for the worse. “I think that when whether you’re in marketing, public relations or really any communications role, the point of the internet is to create relationships,” says Izzetpanah.

The problem, she says, is that it’s difficult to see those relationships through the numbers that frequently dominate internet marketing campaigns.

“As communications professionals are paid to produce results it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers and information that you can provide to a client, things like x amount of impressions on their company’s name or logo,” she says. “But as humans we crave real things – it’s in our nature, to care about raw, real things.”

Those brands that are willing to show their flaws and connect with audiences on a human level will find more lasting success, says Izzetpanah.

Always something to learn

That commitment to authenticity also informs Izzetpanah’s broader career strategy.

I move from place to place because I believe there’s something to learn in each one of those industries

She’s held several positions at multiple organizations – including Correctional Service of Canada, TD, the Ottawa Champions – in just a few years. “I’ve always been all over the place,” she says. “My career path is very similar to the way my brain works – I move from place to place because I believe there’s something to learn in each one of those industries.”

She’s the first to acknowledge how it looks to outsiders – “many of my peers have laughed at me, and told me to settle down and just pick something” – but says she’s just staying true to herself.

“I am a strong believer that we can do anything we want, especially when we’re young,” she says. “I’ve always focused on trying new things based on the opportunity to learn.”

Connect with Ro Izzetpanah on LinkedIn.

The value of relationships: Member profile of Mathieu Larocque, Spokesperson, CATSA

Mathieu Larocque believes relationships are at the heart of great communication. As the spokesperson for the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), the Crown corporation responsible for screening air travellers and their baggage, Mathieu says building connections with other people can make all the difference.

“I have a large network of contacts across the country in our regional offices, with media, industry partners, law enforcement agencies, etc.,” says Mathieu. “When an incident happens, as it’s often the case in our industry, being able to pick up the phone and get the information you need quickly is invaluable.”

Building relationships is also one of the main reasons why Mathieu decided to join IABC in 2013. He wanted to network with other communications professionals, stay current on industry trends and have greater access to professional development (PD) opportunities. Since then he’s remained a member, finding benefit in the ability to stay current and on top of best practices from around the world of communications.

“The PD opportunities evolve and are quite relevant to my work,” Mathieu says. “The newsletters and other resources available to members are great sources of inspiration.” Such resources help keep him on top of an ever-shifting work environment, Mathieu explains. CATSA screens more than 150,000 passengers every day at major Canadian airports, meaning there are many opportunities to communicate “proactively or reactively” with passengers and stakeholders.

Mathieu is responsible for all of CATSA’s media relations, which includes media monitoring, interviews and announcements, as well as its social media. He also liaises with other entities in CATSA’s world: airlines, airport associations, law enforcement and government departments. To do this he has to be good at public speaking in front of large audiences with a microphone or in front of a camera. Being fully bilingual in French and English is an added bonus.

But what really gets Mathieu excited about his job? “I love to manage issues,” he says. “When I receive a media request or when an incident happens, I get really excited. I love chasing information down and passing it on as we try to find the best way possible to address the issue.”

Given the success Mathieu has had with CATSA, his advice to young communicators is unsurprising: “It’s never too early to start building your network and your writing skills are never good enough. You can’t go wrong with joining IABC, either— it’s a great way to have access to resources that will help you in your career.”

Follow Mathieu on Twitter and LinkedIn

Learn more about the benefits of joining IABC, click here.

 

Building internal communications success stories: Meet IABC Ottawa member Eileen McKeever

Eileen McKeever knows it’s a cliché, but in her case it’s true: No two days are ever the same.

That’s because, when you’re working in internal communications, you aren’t just working in one corner of an organization. You’re communicating with an entire company.

“I love the interaction and collaboration with our internal clients in trying to come up with communications solutions that will work for their programs and initiatives – ensuring that they are properly communicated, promoted and well received by our employees,” says McKeever.

McKeever is the Manager of Employee Communications at NAV CANADA, Canada’s air navigation service provider. Together with a team of five other communications professionals, she handles internal communications for the company and its roughly 4,600 employees.

This can mean everything from supporting the communication of company benefits and wellness programs to producing their flagship newsletter.

“You consistently try to view communications from an employee’s perspective – what do they need to know, how can we reach them, how will this be received and how can we achieve employee understanding and buy-in,” says McKeever.

The company, which celebrated its 20th anniversary as a private company last year, has won several awards over the years, including three International Air Transport Association Eagle Awards for Best Air Navigation Service Provider. NAV CANADA was recently named one of Canada’s Top 100 Employers and was also on the 2017 Forbes list of Canada’s best employers.

McKeever’s membership in IABC Ottawa has played a role in that success and in her growth as a communicator.

The networking opportunities and events, featuring guest speakers, first drew her in. Since then she’s taken increasing advantage of other IABC resources. IABC Ottawa’s job posting service, Jobline, has been a great source of external candidates for communications positions for which NAV CANADA is hiring.

“IABC provides you with access to so much information and the opportunities to meet and discuss common communications issues with colleagues who are often dealing with very similar challenges,” says McKeever of her membership.

She also wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a position to internal communications to young communicators – even if they’ve never before considered it.

“You’re learning all the time,” says McKeever. “And because you generally work with so many different people in various disciplines within the organization, it gives you a unique perspective and a broader view of the company as a whole.”