Communicating Strategically Helps Nonprofits Get Attention

Non-profit leaders are stressed out. How can anyone survive, let alone thrive as funding dries up, endowments shrink and long-time donors disappear? Even in a good year, every nonprofit thinks they are a well-kept secret. How can we get some attention for the great work we do? We have a great story but how can we get people to listen?

Too often, the answer is to focus on tactics. Getting a story on TV may get you some nice results, but if it is not part of strategic communications program the results will likely be short-term. Long-term success depends on moving strategically. A tactical campaign is like putting the cart before the horse. You might make some progress but you won't get very far.

So what does a strategic communications plan look like? It should include your goals, measurable objectives, strategies to meet those objectives and tactics to support your strategies. A good place to start is by asking, "What is the problem and how can we solve it?"

Situation analysis

The first step is to see where you are now. What is the problem we need to solve? What are our challenges and opportunities? Is the problem that we've been around for years but nobody knows us? Or we have a serious competitor? Or we need to reach Hispanics but we don't speak Spanish?

Define your goals

Depending on the situation analysis, your overarching goal might be to raise brand awareness or to reach a wider audience. Maybe it's establishing a multicultural outreach program. The goal is really the solution to your problem.

Identify clear objectives

Establishing measurable objectives at the outset will help you determine if the campaign was successful. A measurable objective must be specific. We will increase donations by 15% by year-end. We will add 200 new members within the next year. We will increase Web hits or calls to our hotline by 25% over the next six months.

Know your audience

Who do you want to reach? Every organization has multiple stakeholders. Some are internal, like employees and volunteers. Others are external, like donors, foundations or clients. Understanding your audience is essential before you can decide which strategies and tactics you will use to reach them.

Craft your messages

What are the three most important things you want to communicate? If you want them to resonate, they should be culturally relevant, clear and consistent.

Design your strategies

Your strategies should help you meet your objectives. For example, a media relations program is a strategy that could help you increase donations. A social media program could increase traffic to your Web site. A community relations program could help you target potential new members.

Create your tactics

Each strategy needs supporting tactics. A media relations program might need a media kit and a news release. A social media strategy might require an online newsroom and Twitter. Community relations might include a booth at a cultural festival or health fair.

Starting strategically makes determining the success of the campaign easy. Just see how you did at meeting your objectives. If you did well, you should also see that you achieved your overall goal.

If you want to be a highly regarded success instead of a well-kept secret, resist the temptation to focus on tactics. Take the time to think strategically and develop a plan that gains you the attention you deserve.

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Teachable moments

As a former history teacher, I was fascinated by the Budweiser sponsored teachable moment at the White House. Most teachers don't include beer with their lesson plans but hey, whatever it takes to get through to your students.

Denver public relations pros have been fascinated by some other teachable moments lately. One was the never-ending saga involving Ward Churchill, a professor at the University of Colorado. That one involved issues of free speech, tenure, plagiarism, meddling politicians and how not to handle a crisis. Another one involved a surgical tech at Denver's Rose Medical Center who may have exposed thousands of surgical patients to hepatitis C by stealing their pain medication and replacing it with her used, saline filled syringes.

Public relations pros can use situations like these to teach our clients how to manage conflicts, communicate complex, controversial issues to diverse groups of stakeholders, and repair damaged reputations. Whether you are dealing with a conflict that needs resolution or a crisis that needs managing, there are some basic lessons to remember.

Lesson #1: Pipe down. I can't hear you when you are shouting.
Professional mediators know that conflict resolution depends on establishing a safe environment for respectful conversation. Maybe it's a community forum or maybe it's over a beer, but before you can get another group to understand your point of view you need to stop shouting and start listening. Communication is a two-way process. You need to listen before you can have a chance for constructive dialogue.

Lesson #2: You can bury your head in the sand but it won't save your butt.
I was recently called in to help a company handle some negative press. The company felt that the reporter was out to get them, but when the reporter called for a comment the company ignored the call. Then they demanded the paper print a retraction. I proposed that we arrange a meeting with the reporter so the company could express its point of view in a non-confrontational setting but the company was convinced it would not get a fair shake. They used the excuse of protecting the privacy of their investors, but they should have been worried about protecting the reputation of their company. When you say "no comment" it just looks like you have something to hide.

Lesson #3: You can't control the message if you don't take charge of the situation.
The beer summit, CU, Rose and the company facing bad press all have something in common. They let outside forces manipulate the situation, and in the process they lost control of the message. At the White House it was the media and political special interests. At CU it was the Governor and State Legislature. At Rose it was the health department and lawyers. And at the company with bad press it was the attitude of one misguided executive who thought he had all the answers.

In every crisis someone will try to influence the outcome or control the way an organization responds to the situation. Our job is to help our clients communicate their messages quickly, clearly, and openly.

If you are faced with a crisis that can damage your reputation, remember these basic rules. Show compassion and do not speculate. Tell the truth and do not hesitate. Be ready to listen without getting defensive.

If you follow these guidelines you may find that you and your stakeholders actually learn something from your teachable moment. Class dismissed.

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