Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Communicating when everyone thinks your problem has been solved

In the city of saints and fortune-tellers
On the first morning of this month's Communications Network conference for philanthropic and nonprofit commuicators in New Orleans, I tagged behind a woman headed toward breakfast. We introduced ourselves on the escalator with first names and generic basics: "I'm Denise, a consultant from Washington, DC." "I'm Sarah, from a nonprofit based in DC, but I live in Washington State."

Which nonprofit? When she told me, I stopped and put my hand out: "I'm a founding member of Funders Concerned About AIDS," I told her, both of us surprised. Not many people remember that my work with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation began on the program side, helping to create a $20 million funding program for community-based AIDS prevention and services at a time when even the federal government was doing nothing. It's still the work of which I am most proud in my career. Only after that did I move to the foundation's communications shop, directing media relations. (You can read about the program in an essay I wrote for the foundation's 1987 annual report, starting on the PDF page 14 here.)

Sarah Hamilton, FCAA's program and communications director, filled me in on the group's current challenges, 25 years into its charge of marshalling philanthropic support for the AIDS epidemic. (You can check out the group's progress in the 25-year timeline it has published on Issuu.) Her biggest communications hurdle? How and what to communicate when everyone thinks your problem has been solved.

We want to believe that we've solved health care problems in general, and the AIDS epidemic in particular. AIDS is and always has been a complex topic, not fun to talk about and easily pushed aside as audiences pretend they're immune, so to speak. I came home from New Orleans thinking about what I'd advise in this case, and kept coming back to the precepts in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die:
  • Go for the concrete: Made to Stick co-author Dan Heath likes to say, "Nonprofit language ain't concrete." It seems natural for aspirational nonprofits to push the dream, and the dream-spinning language that goes with it. But if your message is framed in concrete words, research shows it will be more persuasive. The more specific, the better. Use data, examples, and active verbs to push your ideas, whether you're pushing them back onto the agenda or getting them there for the first time.
  • Watch your jargon: Check out the Communications Network jargon finder, here waxing eloquent on the word "access" in healthcare. The words you use as shorthand are not shorthand to the rest of us. 
  • Find and share the surprise: In the case of the AIDS epidemic, the problem might just be the surprise, alerting audiences that the issue isn't as solved as you might think. Earlier in the epidemic, the surprise was that it affected a wider population. I shared with Hamilton the moment when an RWJF trustee put my 27-year-old self on the spot, asking, "Why do you care so much about this epidemic, Denise?" I didn't hesitate to answer that I could die of AIDS, that friends of mine were already dead, and that I wanted to live through the most productive years of my life--years that were still ahead of me. The surprise in that exchange was that I looked to him like an unlikely candidate, and I knew that. 
  • Look for the early indicators: Since leaving the foundation, I've had the privilege to work with some leading AIDS researchers, and they have long told me privately that the current mix of drugs that have worked so well to keep people with AIDS and HIV alive will, at some point, stop working. Since we can already see this early indicator of problems to come, let's get that out on the table publicly to make the case for prevention and care.  
I don't know that this is an airtight formula, but the people who tilt at windmills like improving healthcare and battling AIDS are used to working without such a thing. Let me invite smart communicators reading this to share ideas in the comments, and we'll keep talking about it.

I was going to call my meeting Hamilton serendipitous, but it wasn't. Communications Network executive director Bruce Trachtenberg, himself a former foundation communicator, has cultivated that network one person at a time. Making the network a welcoming place has been, for him, a personal effort as much as a professional one. The network's board announced that Trachtenberg will be leaving his post after having revived the organization. I have to say my encounters at the recent meeting were all a result of the groundwork he's done over the past several years. I'm looking forward to finding out which lucky or smart organization will take advantage of his talents.

It's nearly the end of the year. Are you leaving professional development or training money on the table? Email me at infoATdontgetcaughtDOTbiz to schedule individual or group training in public speaking, presenting, or social media; to prep for your upcoming TED or TEDx talk; or a communications retreat.

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