by Sarah Durham
A decade ago, a typical nonprofit staff person with ‘communications’ in their job title would have spent much of their time writing press releases and facilitating media coverage. As things happened at the organization, a communications staff person was briefed so they could write something about it for the newsletter, annual report, etc, or pitch a story to a journalist. It didn’t matter if they weren’t a part of the original discussion as they were the people who had time to read, edit, and approve whatever was written before it went out.
As people become more actively engaged with your issues and work online, communicators have to be seamlessly embedded throughout the organization, and the broadcaster/writer/editor role is changing. Why? Because communicating effectively online, particularly in social media, requires a fluid, transparent exchange of information. When done well, a conversation emerges that builds relationships with advocates, friends, and maybe even donors. An organization that issues press releases and doesn’t engage in conversation online or encourage others to share opinions is perceived as ‘broadcasting’, or, worse, trying to control or avoid the conversation.
Pitching stories to the media just ain’t what it used to be. Even landing big media coverage no longer reliably yields significant results. Donors don’t mail in big checks because they read about you in the Wall Street Journal or saw your organization featured on CNN. So instead of focusing efforts on media relations, communications staff who understand today’s world are seeking out content to blog, Tweet, and Facebook. Communicating with external audiences is often happening in real-time, or close to it, and they need to keep that conversation fresh and active. Perhaps the people who’re communicating about your organization online need to be in those programs or advocacy meetings too – or, at least, briefed immediately afterwards – if they’re going to be able to engage in online conversations about them.
Instead of thinking of communications as a separate department, nonprofits should start seeing everyone as a communicator, regardless of if it’s in their job title or not. It’s up to the program, development, and executive staffs to identify meaningful topics on the organization that should be shared externally and make sure it’s handled well – otherwise that content gets lost, or can feel filtered and less engaged.
And instead of thinking of themselves as writers and editors, staff communicators should think of themselves as hunters and gatherers – seeking out good content, sharing it meaningfully, and sharing the spoils of that conversation both internally and externally.
Interested in this topic? Check out The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s ‘Social Good’ podcast, episode 10, titled “Creating an internal online culture” for more.
Sarah Durham is the principal and founder of Big Duck, a communications firm that works exclusively with nonprofits and deeply in the Jewish world.