Communications Trends: Evolution or Revolution

by Doug Gould

We are living through rapid social and cultural change. In addition to the flagging economy, the nonprofit sector has been doubly hurt by a pull back in charitable giving and a sinking stock market, which undermined foundation support. Add to this an apparent revolution in the field of communications. It is easy to think everything’s new – even revolutionary. Sadly, its not.

The constant barrage of new tools can put communications experts and organizations in “rapid-response” mode, fighting to understand the “latest trends” while the fundamentals get lost. Social media has exploded, offering new ways to slice and dice audiences and providing new forums for social change communications. The traditional business models of public relations and advertising have been upended by the rapid shift to Web-based communications and the explosion of the blogosphere, all at the expense of collapsing traditional media. I could go on.

But organizations that need to advance policy in the public interest should know – this is not revolution. The crucial fundamentals remain the same; we just have to build on trends of the last 15 years, in particular, media consolidation at the top and fragmentation at the bottom. Until the financial crisis, newspapers and other media were merging into news and entertainment conglomerates. Simultaneously, many Web-based specialty publications and blogs offered more places to acquire information, albeit without the verification applied by traditional media.

Many forget that the evolution of online media and social networking is really about delivery systems. We recently commissioned an analysis of the blogosphere and our research partners found that the two mother lodes of information that feed the bulk of blog posts are “old media” stalwarts such as The New York Times and NPR.

These findings remind us of the importance of an integrated strategic communications approach that embraces traditional and new media. We now have a wealth of dazzling and fun venues in which to seed content, and increase engagement and interactivity. However, a common and often repeated narrative is still the key to facilitating public understanding of an issue.

Effective communications still requires:

  • A viable strategy built upon a solid understanding of how audiences frame issues, behave and are motivated to act – which can only be learned through audience and message research.
  • A solid narrative framed in ways that engage and move people. Too many people tell stories that inadvertently undercut their intended impact. For example, extolling the triumphs of kids who overcome poverty only proves to people that left to their own devices, kids can overcome poverty without society’s help.
  • A good message that is values-based and touches people’s hearts and minds is still essential but often ignored.
  • Solid research and analysis are even more important today so that limited resources are spent effectively.
  • Face-to-face engagement, that most traditional form of communication, is on the upswing. Think of all the meet-ups, community service projects, book groups, clubs and local political circles (post-Obama campaign). Yes, people still text away on their BlackBerrys; but more are seeking real time human connection in the fellowship of others.

Good communicators implementing strong strategies and winning messages really can effect change. Content is still king, despite the fun and excitement of the new delivery systems, and all of us need to remember this mantra as we advance public interest issues.

Douglas Gould is a longtime nonprofit communications professional. Douglas is a former VP of Communications at Planned Parenthood and is now President of Douglas Gould and Company.