A decade ago, a typical nonprofit staff person with "communications" in his or her job title would have spent much of his/her time writing press releases and facilitating media coverage. As things happened at the organization, a communications staff person was briefed so he/she could write something about it for the newsletter, annual report, etc., or pitch a story to a journalist. It didn't matter if communications staff members weren't a part of the original discussion, as they were the people who had time to read, edit, and approve whatever was written before it was released. Stories moved at a generally slower pace, and in most cases there was time to get the voice right before anything went out.
Seems like a long time ago, doesn't it?
In order to do their job well today, communicators have to be seamlessly embedded throughout the organization, and the broadcaster/writer/editor role is changing dramatically. Why? Because communicating effectively online, particularly in social media, requires a fluid, transparent exchange of information. When done well, a conversation emerges that builds relationships with advocates, friends, and maybe even donors. An organization that issues press releases and doesn't engage in conversation online or encourage others to share opinions is perceived as "broadcasting," or, worse, trying to control or avoid the conversation.
Pitching stories to the media isn't what it used to be. Even landing big media coverage no longer reliably yields significant results. Donors don't mail in big checks because they read about you in the Wall Street Journal or saw your organization featured on CNN. So instead of focusing efforts on media relations, communications staff who understand today's world are seeking out content to blog, Tweet, and Facebook. Communicating with external audiences is often happening in real time, or close to it, and they need to keep that conversation fresh and active. Perhaps the people who're communicating about your organization online need to be in those programs or advocacy meetings, too—or, at least, briefed immediately afterwards—if they're going to be able to engage in online conversations about them.
Instead of thinking of communications as a separate department, nonprofits should start seeing everyone as a communicator, regardless of if it's in their job title or not. It's up to the program, development, and executive staffs to identify meaningful topics on the organization that should be shared externally and make sure it's handled well—otherwise that content gets lost, or can feel filtered and less engaged.
And instead of thinking of themselves as writers and editors, staff communicators should think of themselves as hunters and gatherers—seeking out good content, sharing it meaningfully, and sharing the spoils of that conversation both internally and externally.
This leaves us with a new challenge: with all of these different people communicating on your nonprofit's behalf, how do we make sure the organization speaks with one cohesive voice?
The answer, if you ask me, is to set a clear communications strategy that everyone understands and can use. There are lots of branding and messaging frameworks that can help, and plenty of pro bono, freelance, and agency consultants who can guide you. (I'm partial, of course, to brandraising, the process we use at Big Duck, which is explained in my book of the same title.) Even the decision to focus on messaging, set a communications strategy, develop a style guide, and train people to be effective communicators is already a big step that can represent a sea change at some organizations.
So where do you begin? First, commit to doing it right. Pick a communications strategy that makes sense to your leadership team and update your brand if you need to. Then make sure your staff is clear on how to use it, ideally with a style guide, training, and other guidelines (for instance, social media policies). Armed with the right tools, anyone on your staff, no matter how large or small your organization, can become an effective communicator.
Sarah Durham, Big Duck
© 2012, Big Duck
Sarah Durham is principal and founder of Big Duck, which works exclusively with nonprofits to help raise money and increase visibility.