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ComNet15 Recap: Much to Learn, We Still Have

A #ComNet15 breakout session recap – light sabers and all.

In 2010, after a decade as an anonymous grantmaker, the Barr Foundation was just beginning to position itself as a more open, transparent, and public organization. In that context, when I transitioned into a new role focused on communications, one of the first places I turned was the Communications Network. I reached out to Bruce Trachtenberg, The Network’s Executive Director at the time, for his advice and help finding mentors and guides for us on our path. Bruce introduced me to new colleagues – Eric Brown, Erin Hart, Doug Soule, Doug Root, Brent Thompson, Albert Chung, and others – who readily took my calls, sharing generously of their time and experiences, happy to serve as sounding boards for me at critical junctures along our way. Over the years since then, even as I have continued to draw on this deep reservoir of wisdom and strategy, I have also begun to enjoy opportunities to pay it forward – taking calls from new Network colleagues at earlier points in their journeys than we now are.

It was this notion of communications as a continuing path traveled with the aid of mentors behind and before that was the impetus of the breakout session I proposed for the Network’s 2015 conference in San Diego. Facilitated by three communications leaders from organizations at different points on that path (I was joined by Judith Zimmer of the Milbank Memorial Fund and Daniella Leger of Center for American Progress), our goal was to share and explore some of the challenges, and the key considerations and tools to advance through each phase.

When Sean Gibbons called in May to let us know our proposal had been accepted for ComNet15, he also advised us to jazz up our pitch. With the first Star Wars film in a decade on the horizon, we dubbed our session “Ready are You? Communications Jedi Training for your Next Frontier.” Over the summer, the Ford Foundation’s Alfred Ironside, Communications Network Board Chair joined us as our “board buddy” to help us prepare. Alfred encouraged us to ride the Star Wars metaphor for all it was worth – light sabers and all. And so, we opened our session with John Williams’ unmistakable musical score in the air, and a dramatic reading of a variation on the famous opening crawl of the original film (“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships striking from a hidden base…”), and our key takeaways were cast in Jedi terms – with three “Jedi Communications Principles” offered as guidance for those just starting, when getting traction and picking up speed, and when going full steam, including:

Jedi Communications Principle #1: Embrace the Force – When just beginning on the communications path, the key is to say yes to every and all opportunities. Wherever a door opens, walk through it and do what you can. Though it can feel like “ready, fire, aim,” that’s okay. You are learning the ropes yourself and showing your colleagues what’s possible. And, in the process, culture and mindsets gradually shift.

Jedi Communications Principle #2: Master Thyself – Further down the communications path, the key is to focus. Even if your capacity is increasing with more staff and/or a larger budget, now is the time to be more targeted, selective, and strategic about deploying your communications resources. This means learning to (and when to) say no – so that you can say yes to the right things at the right time, and have capacity to go at them in the right way. To facilitate conversations with colleagues about the best and highest ways to integrate communications, we introduced this framework that we developed recently at the Barr Foundation:


Jedi Communications Principle #3: Know the Dark Side (and Prepare for the Epic Battle): Still further down the path, as you grow, and as you become more effective at integrating communications to advance your goals, it is increasingly important to anticipate and prepare for attacks against you, your ideas, and your causes. This means fortifying your arguments, as well as understanding the strongest critiques you are likely to face – so that you can be prepared to counterattack. To illustrate, Daniella shared the “message triangle” framework often used at the Center for American Progress – populated, for illustrative purposes, with arguments in defense of the core message that The Phantom Menace was the worst Star Wars film of all time:


A fourth takeaway for us on the panel – which didn’t make it into our slides, but we hope was evident throughout our session – was that, even in the serious business of restoring freedom to the galaxy, there is an important place for the ridiculous, and for fun; hence the mid-presentation entrance of Darth Vader and subsequent light-saber battle captured in this Tweet by Alissa @_al_man:


It is a similar joy I know I always encounter at ComNet – the serious work of social change fueled as much by inspiring speakers and sessions as by a serious dose of fellowship and fun. This was certainly the case on the beach in Coronado, and will doubtless be again when we meet in Detroit, #DrivingChange at #ComNet16.

To see our presentation slides (including results of our pre-session survey of Network members on their thorniest challenges and keys to breakthrough), visit “Ready Are You? – ComNet15” on Slideshare. And for more images and reflections, serious and ridiculous, via Twitter, here is our Storify.

May the communications force be with you!

Stefan Lanfer is director of communications at the Barr Foundation


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