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Here’s How to Bring Your Messages Home


I had the opportunity last week of listening as Communications Network members Marc Fest from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and Fred Mann from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, along with their finance department colleagues–Juan Martinez (Knight) and Peggi Einhorn (RWJF)–addressed the New York City meeting of the Foundation Financial Officers Group.

During their presentation the communications and finance department teams talked about how, to allay fears about the impact of the recent market meltdown, both foundations didn’t stay silent waiting for the clouds to pass. Instead they aggressively talked to a range of audiences about how they were dealing with the drop in asset value at their respective organizations–everything from future grantmaking plans to internal restructuring.

While panelists–including Communications Network board chair, Eric Brown from the Hewlett Foundation, and treasurer, Craig Ziegler from the California HealthCare Foundation–aimed to inform and encourage a group that’s not often in the forefront of communications activities to get comfortable about being more vocal, they also made the case to financial officers that there’s no part of foundation work that’s immune from public or media scrutiny anymore. More so, these days financial activities are even more likely to be fair game from outside questioners, and that’s why it makes good sense for financial staff members to get to know their communications colleagues well in advance of any dark clouds on the horizon.

As expected, much of the conversation focused on the messages the foundations developed to fully inform grantees, community members, staff, and other funders. During his part of the presentation, Fest, vice president of communications, shared a helpful technique he uses to help his colleagues across the Knight Foundation know what to say as well as to stay on message.

Fest described what he calls the “message house.”  He said the idea for a message house is simple–and it is literally, a house.  Fest explains:

Take the message bullets and put them on a single page inside the shape of a house.

  • The roof contains the name of the project
  • The most important message lives on the penthouse top floor
  • The floor below gets the second and third key message.
  • Often it’s useful to have two or three proof points move into the first floor.

Here’s the clincher: Now don’t anymore tell your colleagues to “stick
to the key messages.” Instead tell them to “stay inside the message
house.” Point out that they will be “safe inside the message house.”

The effect of using the visual, concrete and emotional concept of
staying inside a safe house is profound. Suddenly my colleagues are saying things like: “Where is our message house?” Or: “I need a message house for this.” Or: “Can you please get me a message house?

For more on how to use the message house to help you and your colleagues bring home your messages to your audiences, you can read more on Fest’s blog here.

–Bruce Trachtenberg

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