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strategic communicator - Author - Facilitator - Workshop Presenter - Ghostwriter

Author: Jennifer R. Farmer

Using Stories for Greater Impact and Effect

In many cases, if a person hasn’t experienced something directly and if the individual does not know anyone who has experienced the issue or challenge, that person either may not believe the problem exists or the problem may be under the radar.

 

When it comes to challenges such as the crisis at the southern border, restrictions on voting rights and problematic policing, our culture has an empathy gap. While these issues register as major problems for people of color and people living in poverty, countless others are not moved with compassion, because they or someone they know hasn’t experienced the impact of these challenges directly.

 

As people of faith and social justice advocates, how can we bridge or tighten this empathy gap? One significant way is to strategically and ethically implore story in our outreach work. For information on how to tell impactful yet mindful stories, download this free infographic.

 

Why is this important?

 

If you are seeking to draw attention to a crisis, you must take people to the scene of the crisis. They must experience it visually, physically and mentally. Even if they are not physically present, they need to feel like they have experienced an issue directly.

 

Several genres of music provide wonderful examples. For example, many gospel songs lead with story. A memorable song from my childhood is gospel singer and recording artist Shirley Caesar’s “Hold My Mule.” In the song, Caesar talks about a man who was too effusive with his praise for the comfort of his local congregation. She describes how the man would dance around his very dignified church, much to the chagrin of the church’s elders and deacons. They would grab him and force him to sit down, and he’d jump up. He was so thankful for the blessings he’d received that he expressed his thanks by waving his arms, stomping his feet and running around the church. As Caesar shares the story, listeners are transported to the church. Even if you’ve never been to a church, you’ve likely been at a sporting event and watched someone who was over the top with their excitement. You can imagine what the man was doing even though you weren’t there – and perhaps have empathy for him.

 

That is the effect our stories should have. 

 

I have heard preachers, rappers, country singers and others use stories to great effect. A personal favorite is Pastor Jeffrey A. Johnson Sr. of Eastern Star Church in Indianapolis. If I am in Indianapolis, I make it a point to visit his church because I love his command of narrative. Pastor Johnson ends most of his sermons with a colorful story. The prelude to his stories features an exasperated Pastor Johnson, who often says, “OK, OK. You all still aren’t getting it; let me tell you this way …” The story summarizes his message, explains it in a way that biblical text written centuries ago cannot and uses a contemporary memorable story that the congregation can more easily relate to and recall.

 

If recording artists, pastors and others appreciate the importance of stories, why don’t advocates consistently, yet responsibly, do so? Sometimes we’re amid our own crisis and can only focus on the task at hand. We can get so hurried in our work or trapped in a cycle of responding that we fail to focus on ways to truly engage our audience. Further, when we are in a response mode and fending off threats to funding or the constituencies we serve, we may lose track of the importance of identifying and center story. Instead, we focus on the problem at hand. We tell people what has happened, often without outlining what we’re doing to resolve it. But if a person’s psyche isn’t transported to the scene via written words, video or pictures, you risk the individual not being able to feel deeply or be motivated to action. 

 

In some situations when advocates do use stories, they do so without the consent of impacted people. I recall being in a training with a social impact health organization. Faith leaders convened the meeting, and the speakers were extolling a public-private partnership that allowed them to provide health care services to a Massachusetts community. The speaker, no doubt in an attempt to document the program’s need, disclosed deeply personal information about one of the organization’s  clients. The client was an older black woman who had made her share of mistakes. The speaker was a younger white woman, who appeared to have little in common with the woman who was old enough to be her mother. The information disclosed made me cringe, not just because of its personal nature but because the protagonist in the story was not present. I kept wondering how I would feel if someone who was in my life to help me overcome obstacles shared the details of my life without me present. I asked the speaker if the woman in question had given her consent to share those details. She grew quiet and said she’d go back and double check.

 

To be clear, when I talk about sharing stories, I am proposing we do so ethically and with full consent. The Nonprofit Quarterly published an article in April 2019 on “poverty porn” and “survivor porn.” The author explains that survivors are often pushed to share traumatic experiences without regard to the emotional and personal consequences of doing so. This is not what I had in mind when I began writing this article. For information on how to tell impactful yet mindful stories, download this free infographic.

 

When I advocate to use story, I mean to describe in colorful detail why an issue matters, whom it impacts and who the third-party validators are.

 

To be effective, a story must tell what is wrong and invite people in. In describing what has transpired, the story must provide an entry point for broader engagement. Seldom will we try things that we do not believe we can achieve. Therefore, in telling stories, we must convince people that all hope is not lost and that they can make a difference and that the problem is also theirs for the solving.

 

We know stories are important. They stimulate the senses, invite people in and give purpose to our action. Since we know this, let’s use them, but let’s do so while being mindful of consent and ethics.

 

Communicating with Ambassador Status

What does your organization do?  And what is your role there? Can you answer each of those questions confidently in a sentence or two that most people can understand? If you can, you are communicating with ambassador status.

Each person within a business or nonprofit is potentially its ambassador. With good communication skills, each one can convey why others should know of, follow, buy from or support your organization. But I’ve noticed that too few of these “insiders” communicate like ambassadors.

Fumbling to explain

It’s ironic. People working at every level immerse themselves daily in their jobs and their organizations’ broader missions. Still, when asked to explain these, many people fumble around.

They give vague, complicated or jargon-filled answers. I’ve heard responses so meandering and detailed that they may leave listeners confused at best, tuned out at worst.

That’s one big communications breakdown.

Why achieve ambassador status?

Communicating like a true ambassador intent on building good relationships pays dividends. It has everything to do with that marketing buzz-word “brand.”

Brand is the reputation your nonprofit or business earns for the things you do and the way you do them. It’s what you want to be known for.

Do you want your organization to be known for being clear? For showing your value? For being open to what others think and need? These characteristics give your organization an attractive personality. They encourage others to engage with you. 

Communicating with ambassador status builds this reputation. An ambassador uses language and context that’s meaningful to each audience. An ambassador also welcomes dialogue, formal or informal, as an opportunity to share more information and to gain understanding of others’ views.

Communicating with ambassador status can provide other benefits, too, such as:

  • Finding potential customers. Conversations in all kinds of places can reveal who needs what products and services. At social events, for instance, I often talk to people interested in my professional skills. Many of them ask for my business card.
  • Drawing in volunteers. You may meet a scout leader looking for a service project for kids, a recent retiree who wants to give back to the community or a business owner seeking group volunteer activities for staff.
  • Discovering allies. It’s hard to make progress on big challenges when you act alone. Explain your mission well, and you may learn of individuals or groups that want to join with you on shared goals. Businesses and nonprofits, for instance, may want to partner on issues such as education, environmental action or helping people in need.
  • Creating opportunities to listen and learn.You may discover perceptions about your organization or needs your group can fill. Or you may come across new ideas you can bring back to your office to make your team more effective.

Make sure your entire staff knows how to communicate with ambassador status. Tell them how you’d like your organization presented and give them opportunities to practice that message orally and in writing. Prepare them to respond with composure on issues that may be challenging. Then you’ll know your staff can represent your business or nonprofit as capable and confident ambassadors.

Mollie Katz is communications director for the Religious Coalition for Productive Choice

When You Commit to Hiring Communicators, Commit to do These Four Things as Well

You may be looking to expand your communications team, or build one (assuming you’ve received funding to do so) from the ground up. If you’re looking to hire communications and public relations all-stars, here are four things you should do:

1.) Commit resources to invest in staff salary/benefits as well as professional development. In communications, as in other critical industries, you will get what you pay for. And trust me, you don’t want to shortchange the people who help you maintain a trusted brand. As you develop the compensation package for communicators and #PR pros, adopt a wholistic approach to attract and retain talent. In addition to a competitive salary and benefits package, be sure to include other incentives such as a fund for professional development, resources for your communicator to travel to conferences to network with journalists and communicators, and any other reasonable benefit that your team flags as desirable. Year-over-year, jobs in public relations have been deemed to be among the 10 most stressful, according to CBS News. Since public relations pros are (or should be) among the first to learn of an organizational crisis, and must be available for rapid response, it’s important to reward them accordingly. Part of attracting a talented team is making a commitment to invest in salary and benefits as well as other things that make the job more attractive.

2.) Include your communications team early and often. It takes time to develop a communications strategy for organizational campaigns or programs. Since it’s ineffective to develop tactical responses without a broader context for the work, don’t make a habit of bringing in communicators at the 11th hour. Additionally, communicators are relying on journalists, producers and TV or radio hosts to help them tell your story, and members of the media need advance notice. They need lead time to pitch a story idea to an editor, interview other sources to determine the validity or impact of an issue, or fit in your story with the others they’re working on. It’s a sign of respect (for your team and the journalists your work with) when you include your communications team at the beginning of a campaign, at the outset of a campaign, or very quickly after a campaign has begun. By including them early on in your planning, you are giving them a chance to work effectively on your behalf and also showing them that you value them and their contributions.

3.) Keep your communications team close. When I was starting out in communications, I worked for the Service Employees International Union/District 1199 (KY/WV/OH) and had the privilege of working with labor leader Dave Regan, and later with his successor, Becky Williams. I didn’t realize it at the time, but they granted me a huge advantage by including me in media interviews. By including me, I mean both Regan and Williams included me in phone and face-to-face conversations with reporters. This allowed me to learn more about our union, and our leadership’s position on any number of issues. It also assisted in developing relationships with reporters. As a bonus, after a period of time of sitting in on interviews, I really learned the voice of our leadership and was able to be an effective spokesperson on their and the union’s behalf. If you’re hiring a communicator, see the person as important enough to keep at your right hand.

4.) Make a commitment to hire a diverse staff from the perspective of race, gender, age and career background. So many brands make terrible mistakes, and I imagine some of these mistakes can be attributed to the fact the people charged with vetting their commercials and content, are dominated by people from one or two backgrounds. Without a diverse staff, you may not consistently understand how organizational behavior impacts people from different communities. In addition to race, gender and age diversity, you also need diversity in terms of career background. A well-rounded communications team ideally should have people who have a journalism, public relations, advocacy and/or political background. You’ll want people who have experience in working for either a Public Relations agency, an in-house Public Relations team, a political campaign or advocacy organization. Experience working as a public relations consultant is also beneficial. The key is not developing a team that is homogenous from the standpoint of career background and career experience. The diversity in career background will ensure you have people who think and see the world differently.

Jennifer R. Farmer is a strategic communicator and author of Extraordinary PR, Ordinary Budget. She’s based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @Farmer8J or on Facebook at Facebook.com/Tips4ExtraordinaryPR

Does Credibility Still Matter?

Early in my career, I learned public relations professionals should dutifully manage relationships with the media. Above all, I was instructed to guard my credibility; without it, I’d be of no use to my employer or the causes I represent. Having spent the last few weeks watching President Trump’s administration interact with the press, it’s tempting to consider whether the rules of professional decorum between journalists and the subjects they cover still apply. Further, is credibility a relic of the past?

Contrary to current events, credibility and decorum are as important today as they’ve always been.

During his initial address to White House correspondents on Saturday, January 21, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer insisted that more people attended Donald Trump’s inauguration than any inauguration in history. Aerial scans of the crowd suggested otherwise. Additionally, the Washington area transit authority noted lower ridership for President Trump’s inauguration than President Barack Obama’s in 2009 and President George W. Bush’s in 2005. Following claims of record turnout in 2017, many in the media questioned the administration’s relationship with the truth.

Let’s be clear, Spicer did more than challenge something as insignificant as crowd size; he seemed to chastise the correspondents before abruptly leaving the podium without entertaining a single question. Like the rest of us, former press secretaries Jay Carney and Ari Fleischer seemed puzzled by Spicer’s behavior. Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s one-time press secretary, referred to Spicer’s comments as a “statement you’re told to make by the President. And you know the President is watching.”

When pressed on why President Trump presumably ordered Spicer to quibble about a matter that could be easily disproved, White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd that Spicer gave “alternative facts.” I’m a proponent of pivoting during media interviews but the alternative facts line was rich.

Just a few weeks after Conway’s now infamous “alternative facts” line, she referred to a terrorist attack in Bowling Green, Kentucky that never actually happened. When challenged over the false claim, Conway stated it was a simple mistake. She later suggested persons making an issue out of the flub were “haters.” However, it was quickly discovered that she’d referred to the Bowling Green massacre on two separate occasions. Spicer too referred to a non-existent terror attack — this time in Atlanta – when defending President Trump’s proposed travel ban targeting seven Muslim-majority countries.

During the next few briefings, Spicer’s combative and argumentative tone continued. So much so that his interactions with the press were lambasted in a widely-viewed skit by Melissa McCarthy on NBC’s Saturday Night Live (SNL).

I don’t envy Spicer; he’s in a high stakes position, and has yet to find his stride with reporters or the new Administration. If Spicer were the only member of Trump’s team with bizarre interactions with the press, perhaps I wouldn’t spend my time writing this post.

Yet, President Trump himself spent the presidential campaign characterizing the media as dishonest and untrustworthy. That trend has continued into his presidency with Trump declaring notable outlets such as CNN and the New York Times “fake news.” White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon went as far as to declare the media the “opposition party.”

The fourth estate has never been described in such way.

It bears noting that I’m not an apologist for the media. At times, I’ve been critical of some reporters and outlets for failing to provide context or playing into harmful narratives about marginalized communities. Still, attacking the media writ large as dishonest is patently false, if not strategic. With each attack, President Trump’s administration alienates his base from sound reporting, while positioning themselves as the sole arbiters of truth.

Sooner or later, these skirmishes will catch up with the administration. And it may happen much faster than any of us expect. Some outlets have grown so concerned about Conway’s credibility that they considered not booking her on some shows. The White House reportedly pitched Conway as a potential guest on CNN’s State of the Union show on Sunday, February 5, but CNN declined. Conway later took to Twitter to say that she declined the request due to familial obligations. CNN’s communications department then tweeted that they, in fact, declined the offer to have Conway on the show, going on to state, “those are the facts.” Conway’s continued falsehoods are embarrassing, and counter to the level of decorum we as citizens expect in her position. Moreover, to serve in a presidential administration, yet face the possibility of being unable to represent its position in the media due to credibility concerns is disturbing.

Even if the present environment suggests otherwise, it’s imperative to maintain credibility and extend professional courtesy when interacting with journalists, producers and radio and TV hosts. Further, public relations professionals and politicos should strive to make news, not become it; a principle this White House team has yet to grasp.

Jennifer R. Farmer is a strategic communicator and author of Extraordinary PR, Ordinary Budget. She’s based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @Farmer8J or on Facebook at Facebook.com/Tips4ExtraordinaryPR

How to Relentlessly Advocate for What You Believe In

There’s no escaping the fact that communications and public relations work involves an element of rejection. In PR, the rejection likely comes from reporters who may not be interested or available to cover a story idea you’ve pitched. Rejection also occurs when the strategy you’ve proposed to meet an organizational challenge is overlooked or summarily dismissed.

I’ve been a communicator for more than 15 years, and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard “no” from organizational leaders and members of the media alike. Bo Bennett’s quote, “rejection is nothing more than a necessary step in the pursuit of success” rings true.

For all the stories I’ve pitched and placed, countless others didn’t see the light of day. For all of the meetings I’ve requested with members of the media, many were flat out denied, and in some cases, I didn’t get a response at all.

Dealing with rejection is hard. But overcoming rejection and being resilient is critical to being an effective advocate. I focus on relentlessness in my new book, “Extraordinary PR, Ordinary Budget: A Strategy Guide,” and here are five things I’ve learned that may help you relentlessly advocate for the organizations and causes you support:

  • Believe in Something Bigger Than Yourself. From my experience, the key to being relentless is believing in something bigger than yourself. When we believe in something bigger than ourselves, we are likely to stick with it. We’re passionate when we talk about it, and that passion is contagious. When we believe in something, we’ll go to the ends of the earth fighting for it. In my book, “Extraordinary PR, Ordinary Budget,” I talk about being on a campaign with the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and how I believed so strongly in the campaign that I traveled to North Carolina almost weekly to support it. From my first encounter in with the campaign and the people supporting it, I determined I would do whatever was necessary to support the movement.

What I learned from this experience is that you cannot effectively promote something you do not actually embrace. If you believe in something, you’ll stick with it even when the going gets tough.

  • Know that There’s Always a Silver Lining. Sometimes “No!” comes with a silver lining. A “no” with an explanation may be viewed just as favorably as an immediate “yes, I’ll cover your story.” For instance, I asked a member of my team to pitchThe Washington Post on a guest column about the systemic oppression of Native Americans. The Washington Post declined to publish the piece. When we politely inquired as to the basis for the decision, we learned that the essay was submitted too close to the desired publication date. We had submitted the piece for consideration on the Tuesday before the Sunday we had hoped the column would run, which was also opening day of the 2014 professional football season. The feedback from the publication allowed us to better establish internal deadlines to place opinion pieces going forward.

Relentlessness is about patience and persistence. Had we not pressed for an answer, we may not have known The Post’s desired lead time for nonurgent opinion pieces. Had we stopped at the first, second or third “no” – we had pitched the piece to The National Journal, Politico and The Washington Post before MSNBC.com agreed to run it – our piece would never have been placed. Failing to place an opinion piece is losing an opportunity to share your message.

  • Remember, “No!” Isn’t Always Permanent. Just because a reporter or producer doesn’t bite on a story idea today doesn’t mean the idea is permanently doomed. He or she could be sidelined covering breaking news, on work or personal travel, or juggling multiple stories. There’s also a possibility the reporter didn’t see your pitch or press release if you sent it electronically and didn’t follow up with a call. The bottom line is that there are a lot of factors that could cause a reporter to decline your pitch, but that doesn’t mean he or she won’t be willing to consider your source, angle or material in the future.
  • Don’t Allow “No” to Ruin a Relationship. Journalists aren’t obligated to cover your issues. While getting reporters and producers to cover your work is key, it’s not worth losing a relationship over. So, don’t come unglued if you don’t receive the response you were hoping for. Practically speaking, journalists often move from beat to beat and from media outlet to media outlet. You’d feel bad to have ruined a relationship with a member of the media only to have to pitch to that person again if he or she moved to a different beat or media outlet.
  • Know When to Back Off. If a reporter hasn’t responded to multiple emails or a couple of phone calls, you can safely assume he or she is not interested in covering your story. After multiple attempts to reach a reporter by email and phone, don’t continue to press for a response. The reporter’s continued silence is all the response you need. Similarly, if you receive an unequivocal, “No, I am not interested in covering this story ever” response, move on.

Ultimately, relentlessness is about seeing denial as a temporary, rather than permanent, fixture. It’s about viewing denial as an opportunity to tweak and refine, especially if you are lucky enough to receive feedback. It’s not, however, about pestering reporters or others into submission. Used effectively, the principle can lead to impressive results. To learn more, pick up a copy of my new book “Extraordinary PR, Ordinary Budget (Berrett-Koehler Publishers).”

 

Jennifer R. Farmer is managing director for communications for PICO National Network and the founder of Spotlight PR LLC, whose mission is to develop and distribute high-impact communications trainings and workshops. Follow her on Facebook at Facebook.com/Tips4ExtraordinaryPR and Twitter @Farmer8J.