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What do your audiences actually hear?

Guest Post: Michael Hamill Remaley

Those of us involved in social change issues can’t help being driven by the belief that, because the work we do is important, it’s just a matter of making sure we communicate thoughtfully and repeatedly. If we do that, we presume, people will hear what we’re saying and respond accordingly.

Unfortunately it’s never that easy or simple.  Instead, there’s a real danger, as well as missed opportunities, in assuming your target audiences are always hearing what you’re saying.  If that’s the case, what’s a communicator to do?

The first step, according to Doug Hattaway, president of Hattaway Communications, is to analyze how the news media is covering particular issues to see which messages are getting the most attention and how that topic is being discussed on social media channels such as Twitter.  By knowing which key words, memorable metaphors and other language are already getting the most attention, foundations and nonprofits working on similar issues or causes will know which ones they should use to help drive the conversation in ways that reflect their points of view.

Hattaway, whose firms conducts a monthly analysis to see which messages are breaking through from major players in policy debates, offers an example of how the process works and its results can be applied in “Winning Words: Economy and Jobs.” The analysis. which the firm did pro-bono for the Democratic leadership in Congress, was intended to help them sharpen their message about creating jobs. For this particular research, the firm looked at a variety of national news outlets that reach policymakers and opinion leaders at the national level, as well as the news-consuming public. They also included an analysis of the conversation that took place on Twitter during the same time.

Based on content analysis methods developed by the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science, the team uses several news databases to gather articles and broadcast transcripts, then analyzes each to identify words, phrases and themes that break through most often. Quotes from Twitter offer the opportunity to analyze a more direct, concise form of communication conveyed by Congressional leaders, and which messages are being retweeted by influential social media users, including political activists and journalists.

Hattaway says that kind of analysis could also help a foundation or advocacy organization get a better handle on creating more impactful messages. Such an analysis would begin by exploring clients’ goals, audiences and objectives. The goal would be to look specifically at the audiences that influence policymaking on that particular issue. The findings would be then used to design a plan to examine news coverage in media outlets that reach those audiences.

Using policy issues around public education reform as an example, he said the media to be examined might include mainstream national news outlets that reach policymakers, specialty media read by education thought leaders, and social media outlets that reach policy advocates or even parents. “By better understanding how journalists and bloggers are covering an issue, and how the social media echo chamber is pushing the debate, we can develop a clear map of the issue’s coverage and make concrete recommendations based on what is actually driving news media coverage and social media conversations,” said Hattaway.

But what if a foundation and their grantees are working on issues that don’t receive anywhere near that kind of media attention?  Would this kind of media monitoring and analysis work for them?

“As long as the issue is being discussed in some public forums, a content analysis can be useful,” Hattaway said. “In today’s highly fragmented media environment, there are outlets for just about every issue. It’s all about getting an objective read on the language that is actually driving coverage and conversation, so that you can figure out how to engage in the discussion—begin to frame it your way.”

Hattaway points out that “winning” isn’t always about coming out on top.  The process could also be useful for foundations and nonprofits that are simply interested in fostering productive public discussions that drive toward workable solutions.

“We call this product ‘winning words,’ but it’s not necessarily about beating the opposition in a debate,” said Hattaway. “It can also refer to winning hearts and minds to a cause. We conduct qualitative or quantitative research to understand what the audience is already thinking and feeling about a topic – and a content analysis of the media consumed shows you exactly what language is reaching them and shaping those perspectives. Changing hearts and minds begins with using the right language.”

No matter how a foundation or nonprofit chooses to use the insights produced by media content analysis, this kind of process could be a “winning” contribution to the development of more strategic communications. Done well, instead of assuming your target audiences are hearing what you want them to, media monitoring can systematically put those assumptions to the test.


Michael Hamill Remaley, a regular contributor to the Communications Network blog, is a communications consultant and also director of Public Policy Communicators NYC.



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