Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Shutdown your message: Can it stand alone?

My heart and head are with my federal colleagues this week, because I know from a shutdown. As the Deputy Associate Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in charge of communications, education and public affairs, there was no way I wasn't working the two--count 'em--two federal government shutdowns during the Clinton Administration.

Tense and tough don't begin to describe this waiting game. Congressional staffers would call our skeleton crew, pretending to be reporters asking for the day's press releases (like reporters do that, ever). It was just one of many efforts to catch us committing the act of spending federal money we didn't have. Citizens would call, expecting help we couldn't offer. And in this time of a fight or even for everyday purposes, we had no communications tools: No websites, no releases, and in that era, no social media. Forget media monitoring services. Our parents were mailing us press coverage from our home states.

But something surprising happened midway through that second shutdown. We began to see editorials, letters to the editor, even cartoons making it clear that people didn't want their environmental and public health protections to stop, even in parts of the country you might think were against such things. The swell of support--people making our message clear for us, while we could not--was a direct reflection of how well our messages stood up even when we were shut down.

I was reminded of that episode last week while talking with a foundation communicator at the Communications Network conference in New Orleans. She was concerned that the reworking of her foundation's core message--expressed in its mission statement and taglines--was getting too incomprehensible, thanks to aspirational words and grandiose phrases. I suggested she and her colleagues take a look at the message standing alone, with the branding, graphics, web features, active pitching, printed materials, public appearances, speaking gigs, tweets, status updates and other outreach stripped away. Once you remove the branding, context and Christmas decorations, you might find that your mission statement or core message says everything to all people...and nothing to anyone specifically. Rooting your message in concrete words will help persuade people and move them to respond to your call to action.

At EPA during the Clinton-era shutdowns, the groundswell of public support led the White House to hold up the budget negotiations until our agency got its full budget back. So I can attest that it's worth it to take the time to craft a message that's concrete and persuasive--and to put it to use well before you have a real emergency. Go ahead, even if you're not affected by the shutdown. Take your message out of its packaging and see whether it can stand alone.

(Photo courtesy of Martin Kalfatovic's photostream on Flickr.)

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