Help Us Create A Communications Glossary

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Guest Post: Minna Jung, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation and Vice Chair, Communications Network

I’ve been kind of fascinated by the ensuing dialogue out of the blog post I wrote on the program-communications divide.  And it struck me, as I pondered the good advice from others to beware about inadvertently perpetuating the divide between communications staff and our foundation colleagues, that maybe better language and translation can help overcome the divide.  I spend so much time referencing communications concepts in my interactions with foundation colleagues of all sorts, but I realized the other day that I may be underestimating exactly how much I need to define and re-define these concepts in order to successfully engage with my colleagues.  And it’s ironic that I would underestimate that, since one of the most frequent things I say when editing or listening to a dry run of a rehearsal, is:  define your terms!  Know thy audience!  And yet here I am, not doing that.

In the spirit of eating humble pie (I love pretty much any type of pie, around this time of year), I thought I’d take a stab at defining some communications-specific terms.  I’m going to source this attempt from two places:  1) what I’ve picked up from my career and my colleagues; and 2) Wikipedia.  Yes, not exactly the most rigorous approach, but I’m throwing this out there to see if maybe we can crowd-source these terms in the hopes of eventually arriving at a common language.

STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS:   This is a tough one.  When we use this term, I think we mean, the deployment of communications strategies and tactics to further a social change goal, like, increasing the number of children with health insurance, or, making sure that all Americans have access to high-quality education.  I also think we use this term to help define what strategic communications is not, like we don’t feel like we’re doing strategic communications when we’re asked to execute a tactic without a strategy.  Interestingly, Frank Karel, former vice president of communications for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is considered one of the foremost pioneers on the use of strategic communications for social change, and yet in his seminal piece on the subject, he never uses the term.

TACTIC:  A plan, procedure, expedient, or activity that furthers a result or set of results.  Not to be confused with the strategy or the result itself.  Tweeting is a tactic, not a strategy, but tweeting can be used in service of a strategic goal.

BRAND:  Wikipedia says that the American Marketing Association defines a brand as a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that defines one seller’s good or service as distinct from other sellers.”  Obviously, this definition is skewed towards the for-profit world, which is why words like these tend to raise the hackles of our colleagues when we try to talk to them about branding.  I think brand, in our field, is more about defining, clarifying, and deploying one’s organizational identity, so that one’s audiences have a clear sense of what your organization’s values are, and how your core areas of work flow from those values.  As Jelly Helm put it, poignantly, at the Network conference:  “A brand is a symbol of what you love.”   However, having a crisper definition of what brand is and isn’t doesn’t necessarily help the conversations that follow, I’ve found.  You’re still going to have to battle through questions like, “Is it about having a new logo? Is it about having a statement that we have to use all the time in our conversations and presentations?  Is it about sticking our organization’s name and logo on everything?” In struggling to answer these questions, I came across a really great paper about branding in the nonprofit context from the Harvard Kennedy school, take a look.  And, you may want to take a look at Tony Proscio’s thoughtful points about branding on the Network’s Jargon Finder.

MESSAGE:  Wikipedia gets really basic and abstract on this one:  “A message is information that is sent from a source to a receiver.”   Or, “It is a vessel that provides information but….it can also be that information.”  (Whoa, that’s DEEP.)    Generally, though, I think that most of us think of messages as something more than basic bits of information.  I think we think of messages as compelling nuggets of language intended to convey the value of a topic or an idea, beyond the facts, although messages are often rooted in facts.

I’m going to stop here now, and ask:  any clarifications?  Any other words you want to group-define?  And, do you have any examples to or moments to share when you saw your colleagues not only understand these concepts, but live and breathe them?


Minna Jung is communications director at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and vice chair of the Communications Network.

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