• Screen Shot 2016 05 02 At 11.02.41 AM

    REPLAY: Content Strategy for Social Good

    Search for a definition of content strategy and you’ll likely find this: Content strategy refers to the planning, development, and management of content—written or in other media.

    Put three content strategists in a room and you’ll walk away with six opinions of what content strategy is and what its purpose is.

    But, we’ll all agree that content strategy is local. And that every foundation and nonprofit has content (even if you prefer to call it by a less jargony name).

    It is a reflection of and response to who your organization is and its:
    • Culture
    • Goals
    • Audiences and their culture
    • Resource realities

    There’s no one-size-fits-all route.

    In this Communications Network, we partner with creative strategy agency Threespot. We aim for you to leave with scribbled notes of things that caught your attention — possibilities for your own organization and within your unique situation — and plenty of next steps.

    Watch the replay below.

    Length: 67 minutes

    For more information, get in touch with Threespot on Twitter at @threespot.

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    ComNetworkDC: An Evening with Network Board Chair Alfred Ironside of the Ford Foundation

    ComNetworkDC gathered over 100 folks at New America‘s beautiful new space for an evening with Alfred Ironside, Vice President of Global Communications at the Ford Foundation, and The Communication Network’s Board Chair.

    At the event, Alfred shared insights from Ford’s ongoing research project, What It Means to Be American on how to speak to Americans today, not at them, and lessons from Ford’s efforts to break through in national conversation.

    As part of the Ford Foundation’s executive leadership team, Alfred works on strategic planning and global brand management and partners with program teams to advance the foundation’s grant-making strategies and priorities. He joined the Ford Foundation from the United Nations, where he served as spokesperson for countries in crisis and then as chief of media relations for UNICEF.

    Watch the replay of his presentation, listen to the audio, or read the transcript below.


    Interested in ComNetworkLOCAL? See what groups are up and running, or start your own here.



    Full Transcript:

    Jade Floyd
    Welcome, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us tonight. A big thanks to New America for welcoming us into their new home. Their offices are quite lovely. I’m Jade Floyd, Senior Director of Communications at the Case Foundation. I’m really excited to be with you guys here at our fourth ComNetworkDC gathering.

    We’re excited to have Alfred Ironside, the VP of Global Communications at the Ford Foundation with us here today. He’s going to speaking with us a little bit later. Before we hear from him and our moderator, Fuzz Hogan, who’s also one of our hosts tonight, I just want to take a few minutes to kind of highlight the Communications Network and the great work that they’re doing within the social sector.

    As all of you know in the room, there’s true value in using strategic comms to help advance our organizations’ missions and to extend our impact. That’s why the Communication Network exists. It unites more than 800 foundation professionals and nonprofit professionals, as well as consulting firms, across the United States. They provide exclusive in-person learning sessions, webinars, and salons with organizations like NPR, Medium, the Ad Council, and many more.

    We’re excited to share that our annual conference this year is headed to Detroit. Just a note, they’re currently seeking sessions for the ComNetwork event in Detroit that’s coming up. The deadline to enter for those sessions is April 22. You can apply for those at comnetwork16.org/breakouts. You can talk to both myself, Sean in the back, or any of your hosts tonight, and we’ll give you more details on that. We really hope you consider joining us in September in Detroit. I’m especially excited to head to the Motor City to hear from the many foundations that are really doing impactful work to revitalize the region there.

    Last year’s gathering was a tremendous success. I was able to moderate Soledad O’Brien on stage, as well as hear from Dr. Clarence Jones, who was a speechwriter for Martin Luther King and he was also the man who snuck out the many pieces of the letter from Birmingham Jail from MLK. We will hopefully hear from many other voices in communications who were truly as instrumental as both Soledad and Dr. Jones.

    Just a reminder, be sure to grab a bag before you guys head out today, in the back, a tote bag to take out as a thanks from each of us. Be on the lookout for the newest edition of Change Agent. That’s the biannual print journal from the Communications Network. This May issue is going to include features from The Annie E. Casey Foundation and one of the New York Times’ Upshot contributors. Also, please check out Stanford Social Innovation Review and read the Network’s newest series. They’re soon going to feature pieces from both the Heinz Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, Spitfire, as well as the Clinton Foundation.

    Why local? Why are you guys all in this room today? We have groups now, Communication Network local groups. D.C. was the first. We’re real excited to claim that title. We have others in both Denver and L.A., one in Boston, Seattle, and Michigan is coming soon. Each of these networks are really working to build a community of communicators and share our learnings, our big successes, as well as our failures. If you know anyone in those regions, be sure to let them know that there are events that are taking place just like this within their local area. We’re going to be hosting another gathering here in D.C. This is our fourth and you should be on the lookout for that in our Meetup group as well as the email listserv from the ComNetwork folks.

    We’re going to get started. First, I’m excited to welcome our host, Fuzz. This is his office, so I’m not really welcoming him. He is going to be moderating you tonight. Fuzz is a Managing Editor here at New America, where he oversees the communications, the events, as well as editorial. He works to amplify the more than 150 scholars and fellows across more than 15 policy programs. When you guys walked in, you saw a bookshelf that had a number of the fellows who have published publications. Take a look at it. It’s really impressive and there’s many books that I was taking a photo of that I’m like, “I’ve got to get this on Amazon.”

    Fuzz spent most of his career at CNN. He was a producer and he covered a wide range of stories, including the O.J. Simpson trial, the Oklahoma City bombing, and as a news executive, he oversaw the daily coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the investigation into Al-Qaeda, which earned him a Peabody. We’re very thankful, Fuzz, that you welcomed us into your New America home.

    Our very special guest tonight is Alfred Ironside. Alfred’s Vice President for Global Communications at the Ford Foundation, where he leads their strategic communications unit that supports the foundation’s diverse programs in the United States and in 10 regions across the globe. He joined the foundation from the United Nations, where he served as spokesperson for the Countries in Crisis, and then as Chief of Media Relations for UNICEF. He also joined the foundation from the United Nations, where he serves as … oh, sorry. That messed me up. I’m sorry about that. He began his storied career as a reporter at several radio stations, both in Indianapolis and in Philadelphia, his hometown. In the late 80’s, he spent time in the U.S. Foreign Service as a press officer stationed in East Berlin and he won a commendation for his work there during the Berlin Wall crisis. He also serves as Chairman of the Board for the Communications Network and they are very lucky to have him.

    Alfred is a fearless innovator within the social sector. He’s a true communications sage that we’re honored to have with us tonight. Please join me in welcoming him to the stage and as soon as he concludes his talk, he and Fuzz are going to have a short, moderated discussion, and then open it up to you guys, so welcome, Alfred.

    Alfred Ironside
    Well, thank you for that really daunting introduction. It’s a pleasure to be here. I’m interested in asking you a few questions before I get started. How many of you are affiliated with a foundation by a round of applause? Good. Not that many. How many of you are affiliated with a nonprofit that is not a foundation by round of applause? How many of you are not sure why you’re here, you’re just here for … okay. I always like to start with a little applause before I start talking because then after that, it’s all downhill from there.

    I just wanted to say thank you for the invitation to be here. I am a huge fan of The Communications Network. It’s a collection of 800 incredible people across the country who do what you do, which is communications in the social sector. We love gatherings like this because, really, the network is about learning together. It’s really a pleasure for me to be here tonight. Thanks to all of you for coming on this beautiful evening. When I lived in D.C., I’m pretty sure I would have blown this off to go play softball somewhere, so I’m really, really grateful you’re here.

    When Mikhail Gorbachev was still president of the Soviet Union, he was receiving a Western dignitary, and as is customary in such cases, the two men came out after the meeting to greet the press corps, the local and foreign press. Gorbachev called first on a member of the Western media who said, “Yes, thank you, Mr. Gorbachev, sir. If you were to describe the state of the Soviet economy using just one word, one word only, what would it be?” Gorbachev thought about this for a minute and he said, “Good.” “Well, sir, yes, thank you, Mr. Gorbachev, but sir, if you could describe the state of the Soviet economy using two words, what would it be?” Gorbachev thought about this and he said, “Not good.”

    If you were to ask me to use two words to describe the state of communications in the social sector, of even just one word, one word, I would of course say, “Good.” It’s good. If you were to ask me to use two words to describe the state of communications in the social sector, I would say, “Look, communication is not about dumbing things down. I’m not going to give you two words.” Communications, smart communications, is about connecting with people and moving them. In that sense, if I were to do a five-word answer, it would be, “We can always do better.”

    I’d like to share with you a few things that we’re trying to do better at the Ford Foundation. I don’t have fancy blogs or websites or great campaigns that we’ve been doing, although we’ve been trying to do those, too. What I want to share with you has to do with getting better at using language, language that does connect with and move people. When I’m done with that, then I’ll subject myself to a grilling by Fuzz and all of you, which I’m looking forward to.

    For a couple of years, the foundation has been working with Hattaway Communications … they’re based here in D.C. and Doug Hattaway and his team are working with us on a very substantial, national research project that we call, “What It Means to Be American”. The premise here is that the communications work that all of us do, whether in a foundation or a nonprofit, as advocates for a better place, better lives, better systems, all of that work really depends on understanding where your audience is, what they think. What is their mindset, not just their view of any specific issue? There’s tons of polling and tons of research that can tell you about that. More fundamentally, their ideas about who they are, what they want from the country, and how they think about fairness and justice and decency.

    We’re undertaking this big, national research to get at insights to get at insights around what lies at the center of these three things. What’s the sweet spot for us? How do we connect to Americans today? What do they believe? What do they really want for themselves, for the country, and what’s their vision of a just society?

    We’re deep in this multi-phase research to get at these fundamental questions. The good news is that by this fall, we’ll have a lot of material to share. The bad news is I don’t have that to share with you tonight, because we’re only midstream, but the learning that we’re doing along the way is incredibly valuable in itself. I wanted to share that with you. It may seem rather elementary, but we’re discovering that some of this elementary stuff is really quite profound. Our big takeaway is that all of us who care about great communications, to move people, and connect with them, there’s a tremendous amount of room for us to improve.

    Our brains are hardwired to take in information in the form of story. You’ve heard that before. All the brain science in the last decade is really helping to pull this apart and help us understand why that’s true. It is true. This is a very standard, narrative structure up here. Very recognizable. It starts with people, the goals that those people have, the challenges that they have to overcome to achieve them, and then of course the solutions or the ways that overcame those problems. That’s a very classic story structure and you see it embedded in just about every kind of narrative that we interact with.

    It seems like basic stuff, but our research with focus groups, with big quantitative surveys, with ethnographic interviews, is showing that we in the social sector, including where I work, very often mess up this basic storytelling structure. We think we’re doing it right and we’re not doing it right.

    For example, we’ve learned it’s not good enough to simply put people in the story that we’re telling to audiences. Audiences don’t relate to people in an amorphous way. They relate to individuals. The lesson for us in our own communications is to focus on individuals when we’re telling stories in a way that the audience can clearly distinguish them. People prefer to see themselves like this, not like this. They don’t like the amorphousness of this picture, if you are using images to get at this. If you’re using words, the story is the same. It’s quite basic. These are examples from our own recent material on our website, our blogs, our stories that we’re telling, and speeches, working to reach each child’s needs instead of working to raise test scores for all children. It seems so elementary, but all the surveys show us that when you talk about individuals, people can connect and relate. When you talk about amorphous masses, you’re always losing your audience.

    I think the more profound insight here is that, we know Americans are all about individuality and they don’t like it when the individual is not visible. They want individuals to thrive and they want them to do well. When it comes to talking about individuals and who they are, it’s really important to not use demographic categories to describe people, but to use positive personal characteristics. We know what some of those are from the research because 70% of Americans said being responsible, loyal, hard-working, family-oriented were extremely important to them. This is not a poll. This is a deeper kind of research that we’ve been conducting over the last two years, verifying this in a whole series of ways. These ideas are really important to people.

    For example, when we’re talking about people we serve or people we’re trying to work with, it’s much better to talk about them as hard-working, striving to stand on their own two feet, trying to get ahead, working to make ends meet. These kinds of words are received far better than when we talk about people as the product of their conditions. Poor, low-income, marginalized and vulnerable, or some combination of that: low-income women of color from a marginalized community. This is language you may recognize. We all use it.

    One of the things that we did a little over a year ago when we embarked on this research was we did interviews with about 40 of the organizations that Ford supports to see if we were doing something that would be of value, if this research would be meaningful in what they did. “Yes, yes, yes,” came the reply. Good. We started to do it, but we wanted to establish a little bit of a baseline for ourselves, so we did a blind audit of the 40 organizations’ communications: their website, their press material, their speeches, whatever we could find publicly, interviews in the media. We did a blind audit. They didn’t know we were doing it and I don’t know, actually, I can’t distinguish any of the individual organizations. The findings were telling because we’re not good at this, surprisingly. We think we’re good at it, but we often mess it up, and that’s why I wanted to underscore it.

    We’re trying to get better at this ourselves. These are two recent blog posts on the Ford blog. The first one, we get it right. We’re talking about a community’s perseverance and determination. The one on the right, it’s back to poor farmers and vulnerable communities and people can’t relate to that because, as it turns out, this kind of categorizing language is distancing from the audiences that we’re trying to reach and connect with.

    When you think about it, no one thinks of themselves this way. “I’m a poor person of color.” No one thinks of themselves that way. I don’t know why we imposed this language in our communications. We shouldn’t We should really go back to things that all people in our audiences can relate to, which is the characteristics of the people we’re talking about, what they’re doing, and who they fundamentally are, not what categories they’re in.

    Those two lessons are how we talk about people, but also, when you’re talking about goals. This is another area where things can get very muddy and murky. I’m speaking from a foundation point of view. We’re learning to get better at this, to describe the work we’re doing in relatable terms that also bring in people’s aspirations. It’s not easy. Here’s a case in point. On the left, in the blue, this was from a recent blog: “People should have good jobs, good schools, a chance for a fulfilling, productive life.” The research shows that people respond incredibly to concrete language like this because they can relate to it. They can visualize what a good school, a good community, a good job is in their own lives and they’re like, “Yeah, I’m like that.”

    When we shift over to this language, which was also from a recent blog post, I think it had to do with criminal justice and the sentence was three times this long and much more gobbly-gooky and you couldn’t read it, so I just reduced it to this. “Pursue comprehensive policy reform that’s grounded in equity, public safety, and proportionality.” Communicating what people’s goals are and what your goals are in working with them is really important in a way that’s aspirational and relatable.

    The problems and the solutions. We dwell so much in complexity, I think, in our work in the social sector. We really know how overlaid and interconnected the problems are and we tend to talk about it that way. Learning how important it is to find ways to make big problems, make intuitive sense, and seem solvable is really key.

    Here’s a great example of some messaging research we did at the time of the financial crisis. On the left side, in the heat of the crisis, it was no use to talk about banking systems and complex instruments and all those things. People couldn’t relate to that, understand what the heck happened. Instead, we found that what resonated with people, and this was done through research, was when you explain the problem in terms of things they do get. “A problem was caused by fast-talking mortgage brokers and Wall Street speculators looking to get rich quick.” That resonated.

    At the time, there were 25 organizations that Ford was supporting, who were working on financial services and they were all clamoring for some way to talk about the crisis that people could relate to and understand. We did a quick round of research and that’s what we came up with and a whole bunch of other stuff that they all used and employed and we tracked in the media. You could see it rising and rising and how it was being used and how it was breaking through. It’s not just research, but then it’s tested and put into use and found to be working.

    Over here, we’re still struggling with how we talk about data surveillance on the internet. You can see for yourselves how hard to relate to that issue is. We have to get better at that, and we’re working at that.

    I could go on. I’d rather get into conversation. I think the main thing I wanted to share with you is that there is a tremendous body of research coming down the pipe that will yield all kinds of practical, everyday lessons like this about the basics of how we communicate and the story structures that we use and employ in our work, but we’ll also reveal a tremendous amount of insight about what it does mean to be American today. The good news is a whole bunch of these current, interim insights will be made available in the next day or two on the Communications Network website totally free, totally downloadable to everyone in this room whether you’re a member of the network or not. We’ll send out an email to make sure that you get a link to that.

    The other good thing is Doug Hattaway and I just agreed to do a session at the Communications Network Conference in Detroit to really share the deeper insights of what it means to be American and to introduce that to you and everyone else who’s there, so that we can start using it. I think, for me, this is research that is ultimately, it wasn’t for the Ford Foundation. It wasn’t for how we communicate. It really always was about the 1,500 or so organizations that we support in the United States and a contribution we could make to the field. We’re going to be tremendously eager to share it with you when we get to that.

    Finally, as this stuff reflects, it’s really important that we understand how much better we can do in even the basics of our work. That’s why the Communications Network exists. That’s why we invite groups together for talks like this, so I’m really grateful you’re here. Look forward to engaging in a conversation with you now. Fuzz, you want to come on up and let the grilling begin?

    Fuzz Hogan
    He would not let me pre-game the questions with him. We’ll actually ask some questions that are mostly tame, but I’ll try to challenge some of, “How it works in the organization?”, is the question most of us are asking. Like, “Okay, that’s great. How does it work?” I’ll start with the easy one.

    I talk a lot about, we talked about the laws of journalism and now English class versus history class. One way to sort of describe that difference was when you have narrative character, maybe not conflict, which is the English class thing, but you have sort of emotion and stakes. That seemed like the same way to break down the two things you’re talking about. English class versus history class. The left side of your screen or the right side of your screen, as the audience talked about it, saw it was history class while this was English class.

    Alfred Ironside
    Yeah. Well, I think the whole idea behind this what it means to be American research is that to be effective communicators, we really need to know where people are, not what we imagine them to need to hear, but what they are ready to hear. Again, speaking from the vantage point of a foundation that works with a large group of organizations across the country, we are astonished continually at the resistance there is by advocacy organizations at changing the language use, the messaging they’re using, because they’ve used it for a long time or it’s borne out of a serious analysis of the issues. More of the history class. Building a practice where you learn to translate that rigor and that depth of meaning into something that people can relate to is really the trick and that’s the purpose of this undertaking.

    Fuzz Hogan
    Cool. Then the question most of us are asking, … I’ll ask the obvious questions and you guys can ask the less-obvious questions … how do you change that culture internally? You mean, you just sort of outed some of your staffers here. How do you get folks, and we do this here at New America, getting those folks who want to write or already have written the thing? Now we want to turn this piece into a piece for Slate or for the New York Times or for whomever.

    Alfred Ironside
    Here again is the question to the room. How many people, round of applause, have struggled trying to communicate a better way of communicating something with someone who’s on the program side of whatever organization you’re working with? Okay. All right.

    Fuzz Hogan
    My whole front row here.

    Alfred Ironside
    Yeah. There’s a couple of things we’ve done inside our team, so we have regular monthly learning lunches like this. We had the wonderful people from Atlantic Media Strategies come and talk to us not long ago and we bring a lot of people to come and talk to us so that we’re continually refreshing our thinking. Because not everyone on my team is exposed to the learning that we’re doing in this big research because they’re busy doing other valuable stuff, we made a point of having Hattaway folks come in and do workshops with us. Introduce us to both the depth of the thing, but also this kind of basic learning. We workshopped it. That’s where these examples came from. What are we doing well? What aren’t we doing well? If you’re being deliberate about this stuff, even within our own communication shops, is really important.

    Fuzz Hogan
    Have you found it teachable?

    Alfred Ironside
    It is teachable, and the way that we found it teachable is by bringing program colleagues into the focus groups where their messaging is going down in flames.

    Fuzz Hogan
    How do you measure flames? Is there a measure or a spreadsheet somewhere?

    Alfred Ironside
    We have a metric for that, absolutely. When their faces are lit up in orange horror, there’s clearly a flame. This is easier and easier because most focus group facilities now live stream, and so you don’t have to be present in the little room. You can have people watching all around the country. We’ve been doing that with some of our more recent ones. We’re going to do it this summer. We’re thinking of inviting not only program staff in our institution, but program folks from many of the organizations that we think would most benefit or be most ready to adapt this kind of stuff.

    In cases where we’ve done it, one of the ones we did in the last couple of years was one of the toughest. We had a program officer working on the racial wealth gap — a really intractable issue. The research was showing that people are extremely resistant to believing that there is a racial wealth gap. It doesn’t matter what data you put in front of them, they simply reject the idea. Some frame in their mind won’t allow them to take that in because of the opportunity story of America. The organizations we support, 20 or 30 organizations in this field, were really struggling with the research numbers on the paper. Then we took them to the focus groups and it changed everything.

    Fuzz Hogan
    It’s a meta moment. You used the narrative to tell the story the statistics couldn’t tell.

    Alfred Ironside
    Exactly right. When people see other people talking and listening and what it connects to in their own minds and hearts, that’s a transformative experience.

    Fuzz Hogan
    Meeting people who aren’t like themselves, who weren’t fellow scholars in the field.

    Alfred Ironside
    Right. That’s the other thing, and you all know this. Breaking out of the jargon is really hard. We have to do it with program colleagues as well.

    Fuzz Hogan
    What does this all look like if I’m a consumer or a practitioner or a recipient of the Ford work? You can pick one or prioritize one. This language seems great to this room. We’re all in. We’re all applauding. How does that impact your…

    Alfred Ironside
    I’ll translate it a little bit for end users and audiences that we’re trying to reach. Like I said, this seems basic to us, but we don’t do it as much as we think we do. I challenge each one of you to go back and look at your work and test it against some of these and see. That’s what we did and we were properly put in our place.

    For the people we’re trying to reach, and we have a broad spectrum of audiences that we and the organizations we support are trying to reach, it could be from communities of affected people that they’re trying to reach. It could be engaged Americans who are trying to drive policy change of one kind or another. It could be policy makers themselves, influential people in this town.

    There’s a range of audiences, but what we’ve found is that these lessons apply no matter who you’re talking to because it does go back to the way our brains are hardwired to listen, to learn, to take in information, to exchange ideas. One of the things that has been learned through brain science is that we really have lazy brains.

    Fuzz Hogan

    Alfred Ironside
    The brain is sort of on a default survivor mode. It uses as little energy as possible. It uses energy only when it absolutely must. If it encounters anything that’s work, its typical default is to not do the work. If the language that we use is an intuitive for people, right from the get-go, their brains are starting to shut off. Using everyday language like this, it’s 50-cent words, not million-dollar words; 50-cent ideas, not million-dollar ideas. It works with every kind of audience that we’re trying to reach.

    I did a presentation like this in front of our Trustees a couple of years ago and one of the board members who runs a big, important nonprofit in the country and is a wonderful, thoughtful man said, “Sounds like you’re trying to manipulate people.” He was very skeptical of it. No, we’re not trying to manipulate people. We’re trying to understand them. We want to know what they think and where they are and speak to them in language that they will relate to intuitively. We’re not going down the path of Goebbels here, it’s just understanding the people we care about and want to communicate and reach.

    Fuzz Hogan
    We’re a think tank that does journalism, so we talk a lot about how much change we want to own. Journalists don’t like to own change. Ford Foundation has undergone some [change]. By the way, very impressive communications strategy around the Ford Foundation’s new strategy. Talk to me about taking ownership over that change, maybe more than you have before, how this plays a role, and how comfortable it is as an organization to start to maybe not manipulate people, but just push change more than just fund and hope. That’s probably an unfair characterization of what the Ford Foundation used to do.

    Alfred Ironside
    No, it’s not an unfair characterization at all. There’s been a big shift. This is a really interesting, I find, dichotomy in the social sector between the organizations on the front lines, like most of you, and the funders in the background. I think having come from the Red Cross and UNICEF in past roles, those organizations understood how critical communication was to the enterprise. You’re fundraising and you’re trying to move things and make things happen in a community.

    For foundations, that has long not been the case. It was always, “We’re in the background. The organizations we support are in the foreground and we don’t want to get in their way and mess things up.” I think over the last decade or so, even this sleepiest of sectors has joined the 21st Century and realized that won’t cut it because if you’re not defining yourself, someone else is defining you. Everything is open for debate and everyone is fair game.

    Fuzz Hogan
    Have you lost credibility with certain constituencies because you’re starting to get out of that safety zone?

    Alfred Ironside
    No, I think that change was really started about a decade ago. Now, it’s mostly embraced and understood. There’s been a sea change, really, in the people who are leading foundations and who are coming to do work at foundations. I think that that’s more of a communications-savvy group.

    What I was going to say about change in any organization, again, you know if the CEO believes in communications and then is good at doing it and wants to do it, you are in a great place. If you have a CEO who believes in communications, but is not good at doing it, that’s a harder place. At least you have some leeway. If you don’t have a CEO who believes in communications, you’re really [in a tough spot].

    Fuzz Hogan
    I have one more question, which is a softball question about [the communications effort behind Ford’s strategic shift]. What was the secret to that? Was it just Darren? What was the work that went into that? Again, how did you push that internally to get that going?

    Alfred Ironside
    You’re talking about the last three months of last year. We had multiple, very favorable features in The New York Times, which is great when you have The New York Times as your hometown paper. We had an op-ed in The Times, we had op-eds out on the coast. We had a great series of articles in the architecture press and in The New York Times about the renewal of our landmark building. We rolled out this new program announcement in a series of things that we were doing to our constituents directly, but then got great coverage in the philanthropy press and blogosphere around that. We ended the year with a big feature on Darren in The New Yorker.

    To answer your question, when my nephew was 7 years old and the family was away at a mountain retreat in a cabin, we were playing poker one evening, and this was the night that he learned to play poker. Anyone who’s ever taught a kid to play poker, you know how they love when they learn to bluff. It’s like the biggest thing. Boom, their mind’s like, “Oh, I’m going to bluff.”

    We all sat there and we watched him bluffing us and all the adults smiled to themselves and were very proud. He’s going to try and bluff. We’re all going to bet big, go along with it, until he wiped us all out with a royal flush. A royal flush is the most difficult hand to get in poker. After the general clamor in the room had ended, because no one could believe this seven year-old knew how to play a royal flush, after the clamor died down, my father, Benji’s grandfather, sat back in his chair and gave him some advice. He said, “Benji, as long as you live, no matter how much poker you play, you will never, ever get that hand again.”

    I thought that was great advice and I told that story to our whole staff and our president when I was giving an account of the end-of-year that we had. We will never, ever get that kind of thing again. What did it come from? We had a very deliberate strategy during the year to build on the strength of our president. Here’s a guy who wants to get out and talk to people.

    Fuzz Hogan
    He’s terrific at it. He’s really good.

    Alfred Ironside
    He loves doing it. He has a natural gift, so we built around his speaking. We had a four-part platform for engaging in the world. We wanted to engage. Darren wanted to engage because he understood as a new president that for a foundation like Ford to be impactful, you have to be relevant. These days, to be relevant, you have to be visible. To be visible, you have to have something to say.

    We thought about these four spheres of engagement. It started with his speaking and writing. He was out every night, literally every night, week after week after week when he became president, speaking at receptions, doing all kinds of talks, accepting awards, whatever it was. He loved doing it. That was great. Then we would take those pieces and transform them into written pieces and push those out, and those became the backbone, because once there was sort of a critical mass of visibility, then the journalist class that goes to those functions starts noticing. Then they come around and say, “There’s something going on over there.” Then one piece, and that yields more invitations for speaking, and it leads to more media. We tacked good social media and good live events onto the four spheres of engagement. We really pushed on all four of those … and a lot of luck. It was a lot of luck.

    Fuzz Hogan
    We’ll go to your questions now and have a carrot and a stick. There’s food and more drinks once the questions are over. The stick is if your question sucks, I’ve got two in reserve and I’ll just cut you off and ask my question.

    Hi. I’m Danielle Reyes with the Crimsonbridge Foundation. You’ve talked about word choice and a change of language that you’ve used. I’m wondering how you’ve also looked at platforms to communicate, not just what you’re communicating, but if that’s also factored into the reach you’re trying to have.

    Alfred Ironside
    Yeah, totally. Absolutely. When you’re out at live events, you have to be engaging. Keep the audience interested. Again, you’re not in that more intellectual mode. You’re more, “I’m in front of an audience. I’m engaging.” That changes how you write. It advantages these kinds of lessons over the more technical style of writing.

    Also, in digital spaces we have learned, again, through creating conversations with outside organizations like Atlantic Media Strategies. It’s not good enough just to write a pretty decent blog. You’re trying to create, in the words of Jean Ellen Cowgill, “social things.” “Oh, did you see this thing? It’s a wonderful thing. I want to give you this thing.”

    Alfred Ironside
    You’re trying to create something g that people want to look at and say, “Wow, I get it and I want to give that to someone else.” That form also advantages these kinds of lessons. I think communication, you know this, is going from more formal and more reserved to these less formal forms, and that’s opening up all kinds of opportunities for us. I think it’s also why we have to relearn how we do it and take on board these lessons.

    Hi, my name’s Cecilia. I’m a freelancer. I have two questions in one. I was wondering, when you were saying about simplifying the language and making it more direct, it also makes things clearer. Like when you use the example of Wall Street and their fast-talking people wanting to get rich, right?

    Alfred Ironside

    Doesn’t it create a little bit of a political problem internally when you’re going to sometimes describe people that you work with afterwards or organizations that you work with by saying that?

    Alfred Ironside
    You can imagine. We have members of the board who are big-time Wall Street financiers and they did not like that language: “Fast-talking mortgage brokers and Wall Street speculators looking to get rich quick.” As much as they didn’t like it, they also realized it’s true. Yes, you have to be willing to walk the talk. Luckily, we have leadership that’s willing.

    Fuzz Hogan
    I guess the question is sometimes the foundations are the ones, the funders are the ones that are actually pushing some of that really boring language on their grantees. Is that right?

    Alfred Ironside
    Totally. I wanted to say this. There’s a whole thing, we have this idea about transforming the culture of communications in our organizations. Because as a funder, we know that many of those we fund may, in some horrible symbiosis, attempt to parrot the language they see on our website or that they hear our program officers speaking. Yes, we have an absolute responsibility to do this better and do it right, so starting with ourselves, and changing that culture of communications and learning from the people who are already doing it better than us. Which is another thing that’s great about this network — it’s this mixture of different kinds of organizations.

    Building on that question, I am a secret program staff plant. I’m curious if you’ve looked at how proposals or evaluations can be communicated differently, so that we’re not encouraging this overly-technical style of communication that might cover up what’s actually happening in a program, or might solicit or encourage.

    Alfred Ironside
    It’s a great question and we haven’t thought about it, but what we are doing, this summer we have a worldwide meeting of all our program staff. We’re starting small with a jargon-busting workshop, which I think will help get us there, but that’s really great. Thank you for raising it. We’re going to go there next.

    Hi, I’m Erica with the Schusterman Family Foundation and I’m wondering if you learned anything about speaking about the intangible. Good jobs and good schools make a lot of sense, but we do a lot of work in talking about strengthening identities and things that can’t really be seen or touched, and how to do that in a way that makes sense.

    Alfred Ironside
    Yeah. I don’t have any real, practical tips right on the top of my head.

    Fuzz Hogan
    You are helping a lot of people eventually. Human beings are involved.

    Alfred Ironside
    Yeah, and that was where I was going, too. Our sensibility about it is you can get there and that you have to try. We deal in a ton of concepts, too. Believe me. Because a lot of advocacy work, at the highest level, it’s not like front lines, service-delivery stuff, which is more tactile and concrete, so I totally get where you’re coming from.

    You have to start with a commitment. We must figure out how to do this, because even at a high conceptual level, for most audiences, not your technical audiences — technical audiences want to engage at that highly-conceptual level — but your general audiences, it will fall flat. You have to be smart about who your audiences are and commit to finding ways. Our commitment has been through the research. Our investment has been backing that commitment, not to do the research for ourselves, but to share it with everybody. Whatever we learn, we’ll share.

    Susanna Murley. I’m with the SunShot Initiative at the Department of Energy. It’s interesting to hear you talk about this because as a government communicator, we deal with a lot of the same issues. I’m just wondering if you have any recommendations from a government perspective on how we could do better.

    Alfred Ironside
    Yes, in fact. RJ Bee from Hattaway Communications is standing in the back. We just finished a big piece of work with government that Ford supported and Hattaway carried out having to do with government effectiveness and place-based type of work and how to communicate that. It’s great work. It’s tremendously valuable for any kind of branch of government that’s trying to figure out how to communicate the successes of what government does. That’s answer one.

    Answer two, “What It Means to Be American,” is filled, chock-full of insights about how to talk to people about things the government ultimately has a hand in and make those things relatable to people. That’s a second resource that we can make available.

    Hi, I’m Gabriela Schneider. I work at Issue One, which is a bipartisan money and politics reform group. I’m curious if as you’re researching Americans, you’re diving a little bit more into the problem of polarization, and how we find the common ground to talk not at each other, but together.

    Alfred Ironside
    Thank you for asking that question. I’m so glad you asked that because I failed to mention that the whole “What It Means to Be American” enterprise is designed to do just that, to transcend the political divide, not feed it. We recognize that people are tired of the political divide and the language that shapes it and drives it. They’re hungry for something else. Early research we did really validated that. The way that Americans talk about these issues is very different than the way that Washington and other kinds of political and policy types talk about them. It’s very different.

    Yes, the whole enterprise of this research is to transcend the political divide. It, therefore, can be useful to communicators anywhere along the spectrum because the whole insight is about where Americans are, and how we connect with them on issues that matter to us. It’s over-sampled on young people, among people of color. It’s a huge national survey that we’ve done; over 2,000 people. It’s very robust. It’s fully segmented or it will be fully segmented. It’s going to be a tremendous resource for any kind of work and organization.

    Fuzz Hogan
    We call it here, Narratives of National Renewal. We’re trying to change the conversation that people are renewing themselves out in the country, either through policy or through … it’s the same kind of concept of just trying to get people to sort of talk in a way that is sensitive. Narratives of National Renewal.

    [I work] internationally. Do you think there’s a difference in the way we communicate to Americans?

    Alfred Ironside
    Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. Communications is contextual. It has to do with culture and histories and all kinds of other things, cultural habits and norms. I think we’re learning very broad lessons from this, but not specific ones that are applicable. The people who work for the foundation in countries outside the U.S. are fascinated with what we’re learning because it’s charging up ways for them to think about what we should be doing there differently, but it’s not translatable at all. You really have to get into the context, context by context.

    Fuzz Hogan
    Great. Sean and I would like you to take a bag. They’re very handy. Please sign up for ComNetworkDC Meetup group. Most of you got that invitation there or our Twitter account. Follow us @ComNetworkDC.

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    The State of Storytelling in Philanthropy

    For more than two years, we’ve been helping social impact organizations become storytelling organizations through (the recently revamped) Hatch for Good.

    Philanthropy plays a critical role in helping social impact organizations tell stories more effectively. And many foundations are already investing in strategic storytelling—including The Rockefeller Foundation, the supporter of Hatch for Good.

    And as more and more foundations start to focus on storytelling as a way to increase the impact of their work (and their grantees’ work), we’ve noticed a few big patterns that have emerged. First we outline a few of the internal process challenges, then address what we’ve seen in terms of developing stories and engaging audiences with content. We’ve included some guidance that could help philanthropies integrate storytelling into their work more seamlessly.

    1. You’re Gonna Have to Bust Some Silos. Although some foundations are making strides in breaking down silos to create storytelling organizations, most philanthropies aren’t there yet. Foundations must develop systems for how to work with colleagues and grantees on story identification, story collection, production and engagement. (Please see here for our take on what a storytelling organization looks like.) For your foundation, it may make sense to identify ONE program and ONE communications staffer that can pilot an approach to identify solutions that work for that organization and its grantees.
    1. Get Senior Management Visibly Engaged. In fact, this goes for both philanthropic and social impact organizations. For storytelling to really become a core part of an organization’s culture, the senior managers have to be supportive of the effort. We say “visibly,” because the entire organization must see that this is a leadership priority. Check out this piece from Neill Coleman, VP of Global Communications at The Rockefeller Foundation, on how to make the case for investing in storytelling within your organization.
    1. Carrots? Yes. Sticks? Yes. Since we launched Hatch for Good, we’ve come to the conclusion that foundations need both carrots (incentives) and sticks (requirements) to get grantees to participate actively in storytelling efforts. Some foundations have considered working story creation/collection into grant requirements, while others have sponsored storytelling contests to help create incentives. A contest with a small operating grant is enough to inspire many grantees to create and submit stories—as long as there’s a clear sense of requirements and expectations.
    1. Stories Exist—The Challenge is Narrowing It Down. Through workshops on Hatch for Good, including the one at ComNet15, it’s become increasingly clear that organizations aren’t short on stories. In fact, deciding which stories to focus on and which characters to highlight is a real challenge to most people. We have suggested many times that organizations shouldn’t try to “do it all” in one story—but instead think about using the Social Impact Story Map to develop a series of stories that all help to reinforce the organizations’ overall narrative framework.
    1. Grantees Need Help on Engagement. This may seem like an obvious one, but, as Garth Moore of the ONE Campaign points out in his article on the “60/40 Rule,” most organizations don’t spend nearly enough time on engaging audiences with the content they create.

    Far too much effort still goes into one-time hits like lengthy reports, press releases, and tweets—without consideration for how that content can be repurposed effectively to give the organization even more mileage and exposure. For more guidance on how to effectively repurpose content, see this post by Jereme Bivins, Digital Media Manager at The Rockefeller Foundation.

    There is still a lot of (legitimate) buzz about storytelling, and many foundations and social impact organizations are making progress. But we all still have a long way to go. We hope this helps provide some food for thought for how to further build your organization’s storytelling efforts.

    RJ Bee is Senior Vice President at Hattaway Communications.

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    Replay: Be Human — Breathing Life Into Your Social Media

    Does this sound familiar? You’ve set up your organization’s Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts and now they’re full of press releases. You only post sporadically – when you have a big announcement or during a fundraising campaign – and you get very little traction. Your Executive Director has an account, but it’s just a mirror of your organization. It all feels like you’re just monkeying around…

    No, it doesn’t have to be this way. Brandon Echter, engagement manager at The Science Friday Initiative, offers practical tips and tricks to help you breathe life into your social media. Learn how to create a persona that will humanize your organization’s social media presence, and how to use that persona to help your staff advocate for your mission. Most importantly, learn how to use your social media to emphasize that you and your advocates are a community of people, creating stronger bonds and building a better groundwork for your mission.

    You’ll learn:

    1. What a social media persona is, and why it is important for your organization to have one.
    2. How you can use personas to engage your community and advocates.
    3. Tips, tricks, and strategies for creating a social media persona for your own organization.

    Watch the replay below.

    Length: 58 minutes

    For more information, get in touch with Brandon on Twitter at @bechter.

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    Down Goes Goliath: The Outsized Impact of No Boston Olympics

    Chris Dempsey served as a co-chair of No Boston Olympics, a loosely organized volunteer group that sprung up to challenge the US Olympic Committee and New England businessmen and public officials, who were leading a bid to bring the 2024 Summer Olympic Games to Boston, Massachusetts. You can read the back story of their work here and learn why The Boston Globe named Chris Dempsey their Bostonian of the Year for 2015 here.   

    Prefer to listen to the interview? DOWNLOAD THE PODCAST

    The Communications Network: The Olympics. Boston. For those who don’t know the history here, can you offer just a brief summary of what was happening? Take us back…

    Chris Dempsey: In early 2013, a couple guys got together who thought that bringing the Olympics to Boston might make a lot of sense. That morphed into an effort that was really led by a couple of leaders in Boston’s business community, who over the course of 2013 and then 2014, started to push a Boston 2024 bid. [They were] sharing potential plans with the media, bringing elected leaders and business folks together to try to see what an Olympics would look like, and then ultimately working with the USOC.

    [No Boston Olympics] formed in a living room in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston in 2013. We were 3 people just saying, “Look, we’ve seen the economic evidence that Olympics do not leave cities better off. We’re concerned that this bid already has a lot of momentum, even at this early stage. We think that we need to do something to help level the playing field and make sure that the other side of the story is being told.”

    Fast forward to all the way to January 8th, 2015 — it happens to be exactly a year ago today, that you and I are talking Sean — and the United States Olympic Committee meets in Denver, Colorado at the airport there. Their 16 board members vote and decide to award the United States bid to Boston 2024 over bids from Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and San Francisco.

    The Communications Network: What made you think that you could take on a mayor, these monied and powerful, long-standing interests inside the city of Boston?

    Chris Dempsey: We knew that we could never match their firepower, but we always felt like we had the facts on our side. We were hopeful that the media in Boston and the public at large would really see the value in having a healthy debate — rather than sort of having a herd mentality with everyone agreeing that this was a good idea. Our backgrounds were in government, politics, public policy, business. Some of us had MBA’s. We had some experience in political communications and in grassroots organizations. Our job was really just to try to get good information out there and hope that the media and the public would sort of take it from there.

    The Communications Network: Why do you think your work galvanized people?

    Chris Dempsey: In the beginning we were the only organization talking about it. Unfortunately, a lot of the civic institutions in Boston that would normally raise some concerns about a $10 to $20 billion dollar project with taxpayer risk — the organizations that would normally speak out against that and raise some concerns — were essentially conflicted out of the debate because a lot of their funding was derived from the very same people who were pushing the bid. These civic organizations were just not in a position to tell the other side of the Olympic story. It was going to have to be a citizen-led movement — a movement that was never going to have a lot of funding and not necessarily have a lot of stature, at least in the early days. We had a very consistent message. That message was, “Look, there are some positives to bringing the games to town. Certainly Boston [as a community] could “pull off” an Olympics if that’s what we decided to do. But there are enormous costs associated with that decision. We need to look at the costs, not just the benefits.”

    In particular there are significant opportunity costs to hosting. Because your city’s civic infrastructure focuses on the Olympics, it is less focused on much more important issues like education, healthcare, transportation, open space — any number of other things that residents really value and care about and which ultimately leave your city and your region much better off. We had a very positive message of, “Boston is a great city. We could pursue this bid, but there are so many other things that we should be doing. Let’s bring the attention back to those things [education, healthcare, transportation, etc.] rather than be worried about building a stadium and a velodrome and an aquatics center — catering to the international community [instead of people who actually live here].

    We knew that we could never match their firepower, but we always felt like we had the facts on our side.

    The Communications Network: How did you get started? Beyond the living room, what happened?

    Chris Dempsey: One of the great things with all these new technologies out there is that the cost of starting an organization and raising its profile are very low. We started by registering a URL, NoBostonOlympics.org. That cost about $10 bucks. We got a Twitter account, @NoBostonOlympics. That’s free. Then we started posting some information on those two places and both started to become a depository of good information. Very quickly there was a back and forth on Twitter between us and the proponents about whether or not the bid was a good idea. The media picked up on that and pretty soon there were articles about how, “Wait a minute. It’s not just a one-sided story here. It’s not just a positive to bid on the Olympics. There’s also this other side of the story to be told.” We went from obscurity to having a relatively high profile over the course of just a few months based on some interaction on Twitter and having a webpage where people could go and learn more information.

    The Communications Network: My mother told me never to talk about money, but let’s talk about money. How much did you spend to take on these very, very powerful folks, in the city of Boston and the International Olympic Committee?

    Chris Dempsey: Boston 2024 had a very impressive fundraising effort. They spent more than $15 million dollars on their entire effort. Their average contribution size was more than $70,000. Most of their fundraising was made up of very large 6- and 7-figure contributions from wealthy individuals, corporations, and foundations. On the other hand, on our side, the average contribution size was about $100. We ended up raising over the course of 2 years about $35,000, but we actually spent less than $10,000 on the entire effort. We were outspent 1,500 to 1 by Boston 2024, but we were still able to “win” the debate because we mobilized the grassroots, because we used earned media and social media to get our message out there.

    The Communications Network: History clearly shows you as the victor. There were almost certainly some obstacles that you encountered along the way. Can you talk a little bit about what those might have been?

    Chris Dempsey: We were making this campaign up as we went along. We had kind of a core strategy of being involved, being responsive and trying to put good facts and information out there. We never had a plan of, “Okay, this is what the next 6 months look like. This is what the next year looks like. This is how we go about organizing.” There were some real challenges and some real soul-searching at a number of points in the process.

    The Communications Network: You took what I call “the Indiana Jones approach,” “Don’t ask me. I’m making this up as I go.” You have a background in business. You value a plan and yet, there was no plan. Talk a little bit about that.

    Chris Dempsey: I’ve always loved that phrase, which I think is attributed to Eisenhower [planning for battle]. It’s something like, “Planning is essential, but plans are worthless.” Basically, how I interpret that is you need to understand your strategy. You need to have a sense of how you could potentially win the argument — but it’s going to be such a dynamic environment with so much changing and so much out of your control that it’s not worth spending a lot of time sort of charting what every day, every week, or every month is going to look like. You just don’t know what’s around the corner. Your strategy, your planning is all about being responsive, being nimble, having kind of a core message that you’re always going to iterate off of, riff off of — not some sort of rigid structure or detailed plan.

    The Communications Network: Let’s get back to the obstacles.

    Chris Dempsey: There were a lot of them! Lots of soul searching. I think especially for me and one of my other Co-Chairs, Kelley Gossett — in February and March of 2015, we actually both left our day jobs. Kelley was in the nonprofit world. She had been an advocate for social services. I had been working at Bain & Co., the consulting firm. By the end of March 2015 neither one of us were getting a paycheck and our work with No Boston Olympics was purely volunteer. There were some tough days in there thinking about, “How long can we do this for? Is this really sustainable? Will we ever be able to get to a point with fundraising where we can afford to pay ourselves and make this something that can be a lasting effort?”

    We were very fortunate that within a few months of leaving our jobs the tide started to turn and it looked like we had the momentum — it became clear that there was potential for the bid to end before the all-important September 2015 date when the USOC had to submit the city to the International Olympic Committee. But there were some really dark days in there — not just from an organizational perspective, but from a very personal perspective. We were dedicating ourselves to it full-time and very much wrapped up in it.

    The Communications Network: Where did the momentum come from? What happened?

    Chris Dempsey: Throughout 2014 the USOC had Boston 2024 conduct a process that was very private — they did not involve the public. When Boston 2024 finally released its bid to the public [in 2015], there was a lot in [that bid] that people were not happy about, that caught neighborhoods and residents by surprise when they started to realize, “Hey — the Olympics is not just a really fun event, it also has some significant consequences for our community.” I think magnifying that was that there was some real misinformation or inaccuracies in those 2014 bidding documents. Boston 2024’s credibility took a hit there. They had developed this bid behind closed doors and it hadn’t been tested. It hadn’t had that sort of sunlight that might actually improve it. As people saw more about sort of what was in store for them and their neighborhoods, the public began to realize that [the bid] was just not a good deal.

    The Communications Network: How important was having a public conversation?

    Chris Dempsey: The media was absolutely essential to our efforts. We feel incredibly fortunate to be in a region that has a dynamic and thriving press. Like anywhere in the country, journalism as an industry is suffering and there are fewer and fewer resources to bring to bear there. But there really are some amazing journalists: both long-time journalists in Boston and then also very young journalists who were in their first or second jobs with smaller outlets — who were breaking some of this news and doing investigative reporting.

    [The press] really helped drive the conversation. They were very good about showing both sides of the story. We had a responsive strategy where Boston 2024 would push an idea or have a significant media effort to publicize the bid and we needed to be there and to be responsive with a quote, statement or with a call to a journalist to talk about why the things that Boston 2024 was saying or pushing didn’t make sense or what the other side of the story was. We were lucky to be included in a lot of the stories, to really raise our organization’s profile so that it looked like we were a much larger and more dynamic organization than we actually were.

    The Communications Network: The Potempkin village strategy. It was just the three of you and yet to the many, many people observing from across the globe, it was easy to assume that this was an effort of dozens, if not hundreds of people.

    Chris Dempsey: There were three of us who were the core, who were working on it kind of 24/7. But there were many other people that were able to rally around the No Boston Olympics brand. I think that was a result of our ability to create an organization that looked like it was strong but also like it was open. It looked welcoming to people at the grassroots level. So there were those dozens of volunteers helping, but there was certainly never the fancy office space or the significant contributors or the powerful elected leaders that were pulling strings behind the scenes. We were a true grassroots effort, working out of cafes, out of people’s living rooms, and painting our own signs when we needed to before going to a public meeting.

    The Communications Network: Let’s talk about what ultimately happened.

    Chris Dempsey: Over the course of the spring and the summer, public support for Boston 2024 dropped from mid 50% to the high 30s. It eventually plateaued around 40%. Meanwhile, opposition rose from the mid 30s up to the low 50s and really stuck around 50%. It was very clear to really everyone — Boston 2024, the USOC, elected leaders — that this was not a popular bid. The USOC was in this essentially untenable position where they were trying to stick with Boston and the Boston 2024 group they had awarded this bid to, but without the political and popular backing that they needed to prevail.

    At the same time they’re facing a date from the International Olympic Committee, which is their partner on the international level, to submit a bid by September 15th. In the middle of summer, at the end of July actually, the USOC finally announced that it would be pulling the bid because it did not believe that it would ever be able to achieve the public support that it needed in Boston. A few months later the USOC, kind of after closing ranks for a little bit, came back out and gave the bid to Los Angeles. Over the next few years, people will be hearing a lot about the Los Angeles 2024 bid. That was meant to be the Boston 2024 bid — we were able to stop that.

    The Communications Network: What surprised you about this work, this experience?

    Chris Dempsey: For me the experience was a reminder and confirmation that a group of citizens truly can have an impact and truly can make a difference despite being up against some very powerful forces. And it does not necessarily take a significant amount of resources to have an effect. You’ve got to have facts on your side, you’ve got to have good information and a sound argument. But if you can position that information in the right way, you really can create a movement and an organization that can punch above its weight and make a difference in a policy area that’s important to you. I don’t know if that’s a surprise — because I would like to think that’s been always true — but No Boston Olympics was a very good reminder of the power of a grassroots effort.

    The Communications Network: Are there a few lessons you take away? The 2 or 3 things that if you were going to do this all again, these would be in the playbook?

    Chris Dempsey: You have to take advantage of some of the opportunities that new technology has created to very quickly form an organization and raise that organization’s profile. We were able to go from 0 to 60 in a matter of months because of those platforms. That’s everything from Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress to a great organizing tool that we used called NationBuilder. I recommend NationBuilder to any social organization or nonprofit that wants to organize people. That was an effective way for us to bring new people into the fold. I think that’s one lesson.

    The second is to continue to use, and most organizations do this already, but continue to use more traditional media as a platform and try to develop earned media where you are producing information and facts so that you make it easy for reporters to have information at their fingertips and to have that other side of the story. Reporters want to publicize the story and they are looking for resources to do that. If you can provide those resources, you can increase awareness of and confidence in your brand.

    The Communications Network: Where else could you see this approach working?

    Chris Dempsey: In some ways it was a unique situation because, look, an Olympic bid is this incredible combination of sports, politics, government, transportation, and housing. It raises all of these issues. The bid was an almost unbelievably high-profile issue in Greater Boston. It was unique. On the other hand, I do think that the strategy that we used could be applicable to other situations where there are a small group of interests pushing a particular idea that impacts communities more broadly.

    One thing that we showed is that it is now easier in today’s world to organize that sort of broader public to speak up to magnify their voice so that they can match the better funded and more powerful, but ultimately narrow interest groups that are pushing a particular idea. Whether your issue is more funding for social services — or anything in the entire range of public policy where the broader public needs to have their voice heard — I think our model could be instructive and I hope it would be effective.

    The Communications Network: The folks who make up The Communications Network are especially  interested in this work through the lens of communication. Obviously, a huge element of this work was communication. What does the word “communication” mean to you?

    Chris Dempsey: In a broad public policy issue like this, communication is about relating the particular public policy to people’s everyday lives and finding something that they can understand and grasp on to. One thing that was effective about the No Boston Olympics movement here is that there were different messages that appealed to different types of people. For example, there was a whole segment of the population that was opposed to Boston 2024 because there was going to be a lot of traffic for 3 weeks. To be clear, that’s not one of the reasons that compelled me to fight this. I actually thought the 3 weeks would have been kind of a fun! For me it was about the years leading up to hosting and the years after hosting that we were going to be significantly harmed by the bid.

    But we did want to appeal to those people who were [concerned with traffic]. We wanted those people on our side, so we had a particular part of our message that worked with them. That was around the fact that the International Olympic Committee actually required a lane to be reserved on every highway in the state so that IOC dignitaries and sponsors could have unobstructed trips — while everyone else is sitting in traffic. If you’re someone who is already worried about traffic around the Olympics — and then you hear that the IOC officials will get to avoid it, that really makes you angry. That brings you on our side.

    Then there’s a whole other group of people who were concerned about some of the civil rights and civil liberties impacts around the Olympics — the fact that Olympics tend to be associated with governments clamping down on free expression so that they put on a pretty face for the TV cameras. Our coalition wanted to appeal to those people also. Then there were a whole bunch of people in the middle who were fine with the Olympics one way or the other, but they didn’t want to have to use tax dollars for it. For those people, we talked about the fact that the International Olympic committee requires this taxpayer guarantee for Olympic cost overruns. So I think at the end of the day the 50%+ of people around the state who were on our side had different reasons for being with us. We were able to kind of communicate with each of them, ultimately, on sort of an individual basis.

    The Communications Network: If you don’t mind my putting words into your mouth, it sounds like to you communications was more than just a press release, more than a tweet, more than a quote in a newspaper article, it was about gathering intelligence. It was about understanding an audience. It was about building relationships. Is that a fair reflection of what you were thinking?

    Chris Dempsey: I think our Co-Chairs’ backgrounds in political campaigns was probably what allowed us — or enabled us — to think that way. At the end of the day we were trying to build a coalition of different constituencies. Effectively, people were going to “vote” for our effort for a whole set of different reasons, and you have to appeal to all of those reasons.

    The Communications Network: What’s next for you? What’s next for the team?

    Chris Dempsey: We get asked a lot whether No Boston Olympics will continue on and try to fight for some of the things that we talked about as a better alternative to the bid. I think the organization itself will probably go away. We don’t think that we’ll be able as a formal organization to move on to the next thing because we did have such a broad coalition. We had very serious supporters who were conservatives and very serious supporters who were progressives and a whole bunch of people in the middle. So we won’t necessarily agree on whatever the next issue is. But you will see certainly the three co-chairs and many others who are involved in No Boston Olympics continuing to be part of the broader civic debate – about how we need to grow and how we need to change as a city. In the meantime, I think Kelley and I are happy to be back in the working world and getting a paycheck again! We spent 6 months not getting paid in 2015. So now it’s sort of back to our daily lives. At the same time, we’re back to those lives with a kind of renewed feeling about how important some of these civic debates are — and our ability to have an impact.


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