Seven Principles of Advocacy Communications

Communication in the nonprofit, education and cause-marketing arena has its own set of challenges, opportunities and obligations. Here are seven core principles I’ve found to be helpful benchmarks in this unique communications environment.

1. Elevate disparate initiatives under a unifying platform.

Powerful communication begins when you frame your organization's varied activities and assets under a single, compelling theme. Doing so elevates the organization beyond the sum of its parts. Be sure that your core theme is aligned with your mission and values, and integrate that theme into all of your communications vehicles. That means not only integrating into Web sites and collateral, but also talking points and Twitter feeds. With a core theme in place, disparate initiatives can gain strength through cross-pollination.

Ex. An education client invited experts from one program to serve as guest speakers in another.

2. Rally stakeholders with a clear call to action.

Communicating core messages as calls to action motivates and inspires stakeholders to get involved. It’s important to deliver your rallying cry from the top down through communication from your organization’s leadership. It’s also a good idea to conduct training sessions with the staff most central to your communications effort to standardize goals, benchmarks, messaging and measurement.

Ex. One client found that their members went from reluctant to enthusiastic participants in media interviews once they rallied around the cause of advocating for their profession through the press.

3. Speak with clarity, transparency and credibility.

Simplify your messaging to home in on core institutional goals, achievements and benefits to stakeholders. Use precise language and avoid overblown and meaningless marketing words. Institute a litmus test to reality check programs and services against real-world benchmarks. Substantiate your claims with facts and figures wherever possible. 

4. Personalize your story and make emotional connections.

Humanize your organization with stories that help people connect to it in a more personal way. To achieve this, canvas your organization to identify your best stories and best practices. For maximum impact, tell your stories through video and images, not just the written word.

Ex. A foundation that awards scholarships for advanced science research successfully broadened their reach beyond the scientific community by sharing the personal motivations behind their scholars’ research.

5. Engage in two-way communication with stakeholders.

Build trust in your brand by engaging in conversations. Listen to positive and negative feedback and respond to questions, criticism and praise. Engaging through social media is a big part of it, but participating in conferences and seminars is a great way to connect face to face. It’s important to approach social media with a commitment to continuous involvement. Better not to engage at all than to create the impression you are unresponsive, aloof or, worst of all, hiding something.

Ex. An organization dedicated to teachers established a Web portal with discussion forums for their fellows to share best practices, gain support from like-minded peers and ask questions from the organization’s senior staff.

6. Integrate educational components and teaching moments.

Develop educational opportunities to teach key constituencies about your mission and the problems you are trying to solve. Do it in such a way that you address real issues relevant to key stakeholders. Ask questions. Raise issues. Offer solutions. 

7. Validate with third-party endorsements and partnerships.

When voices outside your organization endorse what you’re doing, you should share the good news. Make your stakeholders aware of endorsements you receive from the public, press, government, business and academia. Be sure to leverage awards, evaluations and other forms of recognition. Integrating great quotes from third-party endorsements into your Web site, collateral and media outreach is a powerful tool unlike any other.

Ex. For one client this took the form of a change in venue. By moving an annual reception from a hotel conference center to a prestigious museum, the organization gained credibility and elevated its reputation. Call it validation by location.

James Miller is senior vice president and managing director of Dentsu Communications, a firm that focuses in nonprofit and education communications. 

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