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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
My whole front row here.
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.
Have you found it teachable?
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.
How do you measure flames? Is there a measure or a spreadsheet somewhere?
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.
It’s a meta moment. You used the narrative to tell the story the statistics couldn’t tell.
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.
Meeting people who aren’t like themselves, who weren’t fellow scholars in the field.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
Have you lost credibility with certain constituencies because you’re starting to get out of that safety zone?
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].
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?
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.
He’s terrific at it. He’s really good.
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.
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.
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.”
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
Yeah. I don’t have any real, practical tips right on the top of my head.
You are helping a lot of people eventually. Human beings are involved.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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