Nonprofit Design by CEDC

CommMission Event: Leveraging Communications

Submitted by will on
CommMission Event: Leveraging Communications

We were thrilled to be able to attend the Nonprofit Roundtable's CommMission event this morning at the offices of the Center for Association Leadership offices this morning.  The theme was "Leveraging Communications" and there was a fabulous panel made up of Jim Dinegar, Laura Meyers, Ilir Zherka, and Debbie Jarvis.

Jim Dinegar
President and CEO, Board of Trade

You know that you are in for a treat when Jim Dinegar shows up with a bag of props worthy of a magician's act, and he did not disappoint.  On the topic of "Maximizing your Voice in a Changing Marketplace" Jim detailed a communications strategy that is ready to go at a moment's notice, with a clear and concise message that is unified across all fronts of the organization.  

The first step is to "Be a Better Speaker", the value of which is often overlooked within the current communications office. We live in an age of Twitter and Instagram, but being able to tell your story in person in an effective way is vital.  Secondly, as Jim illustrated with the arrow that he somehow got onto a metro train this morning, you must have a point.  Be succint but confident, and tell the story in such a way that it appeals to your audience in a way that they can relate, always having your team ready and on message for whenever an opportunity arises.  In developing that message it is crucial to be solidified as an organziation, and as the box of Eggos that were next on Jim's menu demonstrated, not to waffle.  You have to present your issues and arguments in a way that is the same every time, so that wherever your organization is referenced it is clear what you do and who you serve.

Finally, the Windex, to remind us that you must be clear in all of your communications about your nonprofit organization.  One of the biggest pitfalls for communicators is to try to ramble and tell too much of the story, so it is important to pare down that story to something that is interesting and enticing for your audience to take the next step to engagement with your organization.  Pull them in, but never ever bore them.  

Laura Meyers
CEO, Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington

Everyone has heard the phrase, "all press is good press," and Laura Meyers spoke to how to truly make that a reality, adressing "Turning Crises into Opportunities", which is something every communications professional in any sector would like to be able to do.  For Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, that crisis came when the Susan G. Komen foundation decided to defund the organization nationally.  When that happened they went to work, highlighting the tremendous amount of preventative health care, pre-natal care, education, and counseling that they provide for thousands of DC area residents.  

By being ready and having an effective crisis messaging strategy already in place, Laura and her team were able to take what was potentially a damaging media event and turn it around through effective storytelling and a unified message.  She advised that for all nonprofit communicators that find themselves in a moment of crisis large or small to behave as if everything that their organization says or does will be viewed in the worst possible light in the media, and then take decisive action to mitigate the crisis.  If you are able to keep on mesage you ensure that you control the one part of media coverage of any event involving your organization, which is what your staff and board say when asked for their take.

Ilir Zherka
Executive Director, National Conference on Citizenship

Ilir spoke on the topic of "Integrating Influence into your Brand" and drew heavily both on his experience with NCOC and his former job as the head of DC Vote.  Oftentimes "thinking outside the box" is not necessarily what is needed to draw attention, as was evidenced in a DC Vote campaign built around dancing Hippos outside congressional office buildings.  As news of the campaign began to reach the media, the phone began to ring, but rather than the evening news it was angry funders who felt it was making the organization look silly.  A valuable lesson was learned, that one of their main audiences, their funders, put a lot of stock in being seen as an organization that should be taken seriously.  DC Vote developed a new strategy based around small acts of near civil disobedience such as silent protests outside congress. They used these as a set of what Zherka called "Baby Steps" leading up to the April 11 protest when Mayor Gray and multiple members of the City Council, including current mayoral candidates Muriel Bowser and Tommy Wells, were arrested in an act of true civil disobedience to highlight the city's lack of representation in Congress, becoming a landmark moment in the struggle for DC Voting Rights.

Essentially Ilir said that there is a general 5 part strategy to good communication in the name of advocacy:

  1. Talk about what you need:  Do not be afraid to say what it is that you are seeking to have happen, and what steps must be taken in order to acheive success.
  2. Take Baby Steps:  Find ways that your organization can build up to a crucial media or communications moment with small acts that build attention around your issues.
  3. Strike While the Iron is Hot:  When you have that moment, be ready, get your message out.  
  4. Communicate Success:  Be sure you can show ways that you have been successful in moving toward your goals.
  5. Stand for Something:  It is vital that you know what it is you stand for, and always base your communications and actions on that unified message.

Debbie Jarvis
VP of Corporate Citizenship and Responsibility, Pepco Holdings

A familiar face to those longtime Washingtonians from her days as an anchor at NBC4, Debbie brought a unique perspective to the CommMission gathering on media relations called "Partnering with Media to Change the Conversation".  Hearing this from someone who has been on both sides of the nonprofit communicator and media outlet divide was informative and thought provoking.  One thing that she emphasized was to know your media audience and have an up to date media list, but not to always wait until you have a story about your organization to develop a relationship.  Once you have targeted media professionals that you think would be amenable to covering issues and stories that relate to your organization you need to cultivate a relationship with them.  This means interacting with them on social media, picking up the phone and calling them, and sharing items or pieces that you find that you think would be of interest to them.  If you can build the relationship to a point where your media contacts see you as both a source and an expert when it comes to the news that is pertinent to your organization, you are likely to have your own stories covered.  

Jarvis secondly emphasized that you will not be discovered, you have to tell them about what you are doing and why it is relevant.  It is up to you and your communications team to seek out the opportunities that you think are the right vehicle to tell your story, and then you have to tell it well.  Storytelling is integral to a communications strategy that involves the press, so once you have the audience be ready to respond with a succint and clear message or story.  If that is through press coverage, or paid advertisment, or even as small as a retweet or mention in a blog post, having a presence in the media is crucial to a good nonprofit communications strategy.