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    ComNetworkLA: An Evening with Tara Roth

    In May, ComNetworkLA convened for an evening with Tara Roth, President of the Goldhirsh Foundation for a discussion featuring insights about the power of social sector communications to spark innovation and how storytellers can help shape a better future for Los Angeles.

    A transcript of the conversation is below.

    Read More

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    Building a Movement in 2016 — What Works and Why

    by Jesse Salazar, The Communications Network Board Vice Chair

    A small group of Network members recently gathered for a dinner hosted by Spitfire Strategies and The Communications Network to discuss the changing landscape of organizing movements around social change. The cross-sector group included a variety of communications leaders from foundations, nonprofits, and think tanks who wanted to examine different aspects of using strategy to build movements.

    Here are some of my non-exhaustive thoughts on the dinner.


    The conversation was framed around three articles that offer different perspectives on the issue.

    • Small Change by Malcolm Gladwell – Expresses concerns about the limitations of movements that are built from social media. Gladwell thinks they don’t get the job done.
    • Social Media Helps Black Lives Matter Fight the Power by Bijan Stephen — Highlights the speed advantage social media provides activists in spreading information and organizing folks quickly. Stephen sees unprecedented ability to build alignment.
    • Understanding New Power by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms — Argues a transition is in place between the opposing forces of old and new power, which is driven by our increasing ability to share and connect with one another. Heimans and Timms view old power as leader-driven and highly structured, while they see new power as “open, participatory, and peer-driven.”


    “The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.” — Edward R. Murrow


    Social media can be a powerful tool to bring people together and empower individuals to take action.

    We discussed examples of what we’d consider successful efforts at using social media for significant impact. Two campaigns stood out as examples of social media shifting national discourse:

    • Black Lives Matter – For more on this, view the Stephen’s piece.
    • The Human Rights Campaign’s Equal Sign Facebook Campaign — For more on this, view the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s analysis.

    “The tools that we have to organize and to resist are fundamentally different than anything that’s existed before in black struggle.” – DeRay Mckesson of Black Lives Matter

    Images and storytelling strengthen the weak ties of social media, so always post with a picture or video.

    As Stephen points out in the Wired article, the leaders of the mid-century civil rights movements recognized the power of images and video in storytelling. He cites the horrific events of March 7, 1965, when civil rights activists set out to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and were met by violence from police. The day became known as “Bloody Sunday” and television coverage of the events triggered national outrage.

    Today’s activists have the power to record everything they see on their phones and share it with the world via YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, or live stream a protest on Periscope, and those are only a few of the platforms available to them at a very low cost.

    Remember, you’re trying to create a moral revolution. That’s hard.

    During the dinner, I kept blathering on about a book nobody had read, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen by K. Anthony Appiah (if you don’t have the appetite for reading it, here’s the NY Times review). In it, moral philosopher Appiah looks at the end of three morally repugnant practices:

    • Dueling among British gentlemen;
    • Foot-binding among the Chinese elite; and
    • Slavery in the British Empire.

    He shows how culture sustains practices, even after a moral consensus has been reached about their abhorrence. He looks at the intellectual history of moral revolutions, and I think folks would benefit from examining his writing on the cultural aspects of social change.

    I connected this history to our conversation by talking about social media’s role in generating shame, which is a big mover of culture. There’s power to cultural disgust, and it’s an important next step after one wins acknowledgement that a problem exists. For example, gay rights gained momentum as mainstream culture and tastes began to move homophobia from the acceptable to the uncool. Furthermore, after moral and cultural revolution, we need legislative actions to reinforce consensus and taste in law.

    Message control is dead.

    We live in a world where everyone has the ability to voice their thoughts, and everyone can find an audience. If your strategy depends on controlling the message over a long period of time, you may want to think more about channeling energy than controlling the message. The power of your message lies in its ability to motivate people around their core concerns.

    There’s a real question about whether or not social media is creating efficiencies for decision makers.

    Social media is the fastest medium yet, and narratives often get formed in minutes, instead of days or weeks. What does that mean for philanthropy’s work?

    We talked about a few important considerations:

    • Tech creates both loose and strong ties
      • We all seemed to disagree with Gladwell’s assertion that ties are loose. Bonds formed over digital channels can be just as strong as those with people you’ve met in person. We can empathize with the experiences of others, and folks can come together and connect in a way that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
    • Activists have more tools than ever, which means that strategy really matters. Campaign design, which can be resource-intensive, is more important than ever.
    • Devoting vast resources to capacity and creating large, sophisticated teams, commercial enterprises are serious about social media. It seems like the social sector hasn’t caught up. Our organizations tend to have small digital teams.
    • Uncertain of how to measure communications activity, many decision makers focus too much on engagement numbers.

    Stray Thoughts

    • We see that folks want to share videos more than they want to sign a petition.
    • People will share videos and articles without even watching or reading them.
    • The level of effort put into digital engagement tends to dictate level of campaign success. How much are people willing to do to make their efforts successful?
    • Here are the 5 most popular tweets of all time. Notice anything?
    • This year’s Media Learning Seminar, hosted by the Knight Foundation, highlighted important future trends worth considering. In particular, check out:


    • What did you make of the readings?
    • What have you done that’s worked really well in building social movements?
    • Why do you think contemporary social movements succeed or fail?

    Please share your comments or thoughts.

    jesse-salazar300x300-newJesse Salazar is vice president of communications at the Council on Foundations. He also serves as The Communications Network’s Board Vice Chair.

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    Coming Soon — ComNetwork.org 2.0

    We built something for you, and it’s been a long time coming.

    Soon, we’ll be unveiling an entirely new and reimagined ComNetwork.org — designed with you in mind.

    We partnered with the experts at Atlantic Media Strategies, the team behind theatlantic.com and quartz.com, to create a site that’s sleek, intuitive, and most of all, useful. To make sure we would deliver you a product that would meet your needs, we talked to you. And we listened.

    You wanted a site that looked cleaner, was better organized, and featured more information on the topics you care about.

    With the new ComNetwork.org, you’ll get all of that, plus more.

    Some highlights of the new site include the ability to:

    • Filter articles by topic area
    • Easily access new resources including case studies, how-to guides, research, and templates
    • Quickly browse upcoming and past events, set reminders, watch live streams, and get directions
    • Filter ComNetworkLOCAL events by location
    • Get to know us better via all-new staff, board, and supporter pages
    • Go straight to our ComNet16 site from the main navigation menu

    And that’s not all — as a part of the redesign, we’ll unveil a refreshed Network logo and branding palette.

    More importantly, Communications Network members will have access to an all new private and dynamic community powered by Salesforce.

    The new members-only Network community will feature:

    • Robust member profiles with pictures, contact information, social media profiles, and more
    • A complete directory of our nearly 1,000 that can be filtered by name, organization, location, interest area, and area of expertise
    • Archived discussions that are searchable and organized by topic
    • Member-driven discussion groups
    • File sharing
    • Notifications from the people, groups, and discussions you follow

    We’re thrilled to share the news with you. Stay tuned as we move closer to launch.

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    Driving Change in LA

    Ten tips for driving change in Los Angeles through effective communications

    Recently, the newly formed ComNetworkLA group held its inaugural public event. About 45 hardy souls braved the weather traffic and made it to the headquarters of our host, First5LA, one of LA County’s leading early childhood advocates. The goal of our newly-minted group is to gather some of the region’s leading communications professionals to network, share our experiences, and learn from each other.

    The main draw of this first event was a discussion between Naomi Seligman, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Director of Communications, and Ann-Sophie Morrissette, Director of Communications and Policy at Downtown Women’s Center, a local organization dedicated to addressing the needs of women overcoming poverty and homelessness.

    Seligman and Morrissette entertained the audience with a wide-ranging and lively conversation about the power of communications to effect change.

    Ann-Sophie Morissette and Naomi Seligman in conversation

    Ann-Sophie Morrissette (left) and Naomi Seligman discuss the challenges and opportunities faced by communications professionals in the Greater Los Angeles region

    Here are the top ten takeways:

    • As a communicator, there are three qualities you absolutely need in order to be successful: be an advocate, be agile, and be entrepreneurial. 
    • Pick an organization in whose ideology you believe; if you don’t mesh with their ideology, you will suffer lots of personal compromise along the way and in the end, you will likely not be as effective as you may be with a better fit. 
    • If you are asking other people for help or support, make it clear how your organization is helpful to them, not how it will benefit you personally or professionally.
    • With regard to policy efforts, make sure you listen. Think beyond your agenda: try to figure out the goals of the elected officials you want to engage.
    • Explain to government officials how you can help them accomplish their goals. Be creative! If you’re a foundation, you can offer monetary resources. If you’re a nonprofit, you can connect them to your community and partners through social media, outreach, and meetings. 
    • For those among us working in a small shop, Seligman recommended training someone young and enthusiastic full-time to help with outreach efforts, and then providing a senior communications professional to check in with them monthly, rather than hiring a part-time person. Empower staff to be entrepreneurial.
    • It’s not all about experience. Hire those in whom you see star quality and court diversity in every way. In interviews, ask candidates how they thought strategically in their previous positions.
    • When it comes to positioning communications and PR as critical to moving an organization forward, use a trial balloon approach. Pitch a reporter on your idea—which is not a significant investment—and, even if it doesn’t result in a story, it can spark a relationship. 
    • It may seem obvious, but remember to develop relationships with reporters—invite them to coffee to chat about something they’re interested in and help them when they’re not helping you: connect them with your contacts who might be connected to their stories. Sending releases is never enough. 
    • Finally, in times of crisis, Seligman recommended taking a breath and not being too reactive. It’s okay to say ‘I don’t know’ and come back to the reporter. It can also be helpful to pitch a different story to show a side of the story that the reporter is not focused on, but may lend the readers a new perspective. Remember to be more creative than the people chasing the crisis story. You can resist being dropped into someone else’s framework. You should also offer to connect reporters to other organizations that may be vying to be within their story framework.

    Naomi Seligman

    Naomi Seligman (right) giving ComNetworkLA attendees advice on how to increase the impact of their communications efforts

    Seligman ended the evening with a collective charge for LA communications professionals to keep our minds open and “think outside the building.” And, that’s exactly what we did at happy hour, where we toasted the success of our first public meeting and learned more about each other’s work. We hope you will join us next time, if you’re in town.

    Alexandra Carew is Senior Manager, Communications and Grants at Southern California Grantmakers

    Danielle Kelton is Co-Founder and Managing Partner of INsight→INcite Campaigns

    Marc Moorghen is Communications Director at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation

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    Now Trending: Communicating for Social Good

    Now Trending: Communicating for Social Good

    Key takeaways from South By Southwest from Six ComNetwork Members

    To gain insight on the latest trends and technologies in communicating for social good, several members of the Communications Network attended the South By Southwest (SXSW, or SX, or “South By”) Interactive Festival in Austin earlier this month. That’s right, South By is no longer reserved for musicians, filmmakers, app designers, and hipsters. Nonprofits and foundations were present and accounted for, joining in on the fun and soaking up ideas from high-caliber speakers, ranging from the director of Google.org, the CMO of BuzzFeed, to President Obama. While many of us ComNeters met plugging in to a track focused on purpose-driven content, we also gathered at a breakfast co-hosted by the Communications Network and Atlantic Media Strategies.

    Despite the early hour, we were all eager to share what we had been hearing and swap ideas. Excluding the abundant and competing recommendations about the best local BBQ, following are key ideas that stood out for six of us at SXSW. I add mine at the end before giving the last word to President Obama.

    alejandro-de-onisReduce, Reuse and Reuse 

    News sites are seeing dramatic increases in site traffic coming from redistributing previously posted content. Jean Ellen Cowgill, of Atlantic Media Strategies, noted that, in some months, almost 50% of The Atlantic’s monthly site traffic comes to content not created within the month in question. What’s the takeaway? Instead of looking at communications as a stream that just flows down, we should be treating it as a whirlpool of opportunities to repurpose and recirculate relevant content, especially for organizations with small communications teams. What’s a good strategy for 2016? Focus on producing less noise and create more evergreen content. Experiment more with distribution and embrace platform specificity.

    Alejandro De Onis, ‎Director of Digital Strategy & Design, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, @aonis

    nVDsw7cfTelling the New Narrative of the Faces of Entrepreneurship

    There were countless organizations and companies gathered at SXSW doing transformative work to increase the ranks of entrepreneurs of color and women founders across the U.S. and abroad. We heard from leaders at Powermoves, Code 2040, Impact America Fund and Kapor Capital and their message was clear – there is a new face and new narrative for the future of entrepreneurship and they are shouting the story from the rooftops!  We also witnessed the power of the pitch in several competitions hosted by USAID and Village Capital focused on diverse entrepreneurs. As SXSW unfolded, I heard from several journalists inspired and ready to expand their coverage and exploration of how diverse entrepreneurs are creating stronger communities, closing the opportunity gap and scaling creative solutions to persistent problems. The stories shared at SX in these settings not only help to elevate the inclusive movement, they are a testament that the full potential of entrepreneurial talent has yet to be reached. 

    Jade Floyd, Senior Director of Communications, The Case Foundation, @JadeFloydDC

    LOR_Headshots_13-1024x1024Professional Adrenaline Is Real! (And Fun Is a Requirement)

    We are all adrenaline junkies, seeking the thrills of life through adventure and exploration. Adrenaline and fun are often associated with outdoor activities, and rightfully so. Picture this, the snow report reads 17 new inches since the lifts closed at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. First thought: yep count me in for first tracks. But, what about that rush you get just before President Obama takes the stage at SXSW and calls on the audience to apply their ideas and talents to tackle the nation’s biggest challenges? Or when you see Emmy and Golden Globe nominated actor Kerry Washington out of character, relaying her successes and missteps in social media? Or when fellow Communications Network members Jean Ellen Cowgill and Jade Floyd lead a session on how a hashtag can break the news while dozens of aspiring attendees stand in the hallway hoping for their chance to get in.

    Having served witness to the aforementioned experiences at SXSW provided me with professional adrenaline that I could not have received sitting behind a desk. There is no show without an audience. We’re on all stage at some point, as the keynote, moderator, panelist or the messenger of lessons learned to our colleagues. The fruitful pursuit of professional Zen requires that we purposely seek fun as a requirement to our careers. Connecting with people who are passionate about their work will keep us motivated in pursuing adventure and exploration in our professional growth. See you at ComNet16!

    LaMonte Guillory, Communications Director, LOR Foundation, @LaMonteG

    NQ-BPbHPDon’t Forget the Humanity in the Digital World

    I was struck this year by how technology is simultaneously pulling us in two directions. On one hand, it was evident that virtual reality is about to hit the mainstream in a big way — a technology that can immerse us in other worlds, both real and fictional, but does so in a way that abstracts us from humanity. On the other hand, on numerous occasions I heard the call for authenticity in the way we communicate – that we can’t let how we use technology channels get in the way of putting our true selves out there. In this theme, one of my favorite sessions at SXSW was the somewhat philosophical musings of Steve Selzer, experience design manager for Airbnb (@steveselzer). In his session, Steve talked about how we should intentionally put some amount of friction and collisions between people into the digital products we create, as these experiences are the most memorable and are what cause us to stretch and grow as humans. 

    Keith Mays, Director of Communications, Kauffman Foundation, @keithmays

    JeanEllenOnce a Piece Gains Traction, Flood the Zone

    The buzzword of SXSW 2016? Platform specificity. I heard it in just about every session I attended, from a Buzzfeed keynote to a Wholefoods panel to programming specifically designed for non-profits. The concept, in brief: design and format each piece of content “specifically” for the platform on which it will live. Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter… each platform is different, the reasons people use them are different, and the resulting conversations on a given topic are different (as fellow panel member Katerina Matsa, of the Pew Research Center, noted). Your content should be different as well. This goes against the now-outdated tenet of “create once, post everywhere.” Even something as simple as a recipe can be re-imagined platform by platform, as CMO Frank Cooper noted regarding the exceptional success of Buzzfeed’s “Tasty” Facebook videos.

    If the concept sounds too time- or resource-intensive, I would suggest a related principle is useful to help you get started: platform transcendence. Once an initial piece gains traction (as an Instagram photo, or a Facebook post, or a tweet), ask yourself: what is making this successful? How can I go beyond this first success and go big with the core idea? What would this idea look like as a competition? An event? A video? At Atlantic Media Strategies, we call this “flooding the zone.” Not flooding social platforms with the same, tired blog post. By unleashing the idea behind the post in a flood of new, platform-specific formulations. By taking this approach, organizations can begin to build momentum around their best ideas and get the most out of their most distinctive work.

    Jean Ellen Cowgill, President, Atlantic Media Strategies, @jecowgill

    square_cropWant to Break Through the Noise? Break into a New Medium

    It’s no small feat to capture someone’s attention and get your message across before the mind drifts…

    (What was I saying again? Oh right…) someplace else.  This is especially true for those of us communicating about the social challenges of the world, asking people to think beyond their own needs and donate their time or money. But, if you offer a media experience unlike anything your audience has ever known, suddenly you have a unique opportunity to break through the noise.  This is exactly what the United Nations (UN) is trying to accomplish through their virtual reality documentaries.  They are capitalizing on the emerging medium to draw in the masses and connect them to a cause through an immersive and moving experience.

    While at SXSW, I watched the UN’s first virtual reality documentary, Clouds Over Sidra, in which a young Syrian girl takes viewers on a tour of the Za’atari refugee camp where she lives.  The experience proved powerful and I was excited to know that the people waiting in line behind me were going to not only get a taste of virtual reality, but connect with a cause in an impactful, new way.

    “It’s not enough to focus on the cool, next big thing,” President Obama said, “It’s harnessing the cool, next big thing to help people.”  That was the President’s challenge to all of us in attendance at SXSW this year.  And it remains our challenge as those dedicated to improving lives through the power of smart communications.

    Mary Duggan, Communications Project Manager, Barr Foundation, @MaryEDuggan

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