Does comms need a rebrand?


I attended a ‘storytelling for social enterprises’ event recently where one of the workshops was a ‘comms clinic’. A brilliant concept – the facilitators had created a board game where each round saw the ‘patient’ pick a card from the ‘issues’ pile and the others had to give advice they thought could save them!

One of the questions that sticks with me is ‘How can I prove the value of comms to my board?’ I have some advice on this – skip to the end if you want to go straight to it – but before I share, I want to take a moment to explore why this question (or various iterations of it) comes up so frequently in my line of work. (If anyone reading this is working in non-profit comms and hasn’t come up against this, I would love to hear from you – and find out who you work for!)

At the heart of the issue – I think – lies a fundamental lack of understanding of the comms profession. This leads the uninformed to believe that comms is something that everyone can do. That communicating is a skill we develop throughout our career in all walks of work, rather than a profession in its own right. And who could blame them? In the world of work, we appear to communicate every day. Every job description – from Office Assistant to CEO – tells us that we must have ‘excellent communication skills’. And, time and again, we repeat that we most definitely do in our applications. And we are being genuine. We mean that we are comfortable talking to colleagues of all levels, that we can write clear and concise emails, that we can write a report that is readable and informative. But communications as a profession is so much more.

Sydney J. Harris, an American author and journalist, famously said:

Information is giving out, communication is getting through.

And, for me, here lies the difference. As capable employees, we should all be adept at sharing information, but getting through to an audience and empowering them to be part of the change is a whole different ballgame. 

Part of showing the value of comms is getting through with the message that non-profit communicators have a unique set of skills, honed through experience, mentorship, training and study. That there are various specialisms within non-profit communications… and that one individual is unlikely to be an expert in all of them!* To help those that matter to understand this – and thus understand the value that a well-resourced comms team brings to an organisation – does comms need a rebrand? And, if so, who better to do it than us?

Over the coming weeks, I’m going to be publishing a series of blogs that showcase the unique skills and talents of non-profit communicators. I’m going to share stories from my own and others’ experience on how to show the value of comms and the (sometimes hilarious) questions we field every day. If you would like to be part of it, please get in touch.

In the meantime, here are three top tips for showing the value of comms:

  1. Agree how you will measure success. When we’re feeling frustrated at work, my friends and I often joke that ‘If only everyone else was as wonderful as us, work life would be so much easier and we would achieve so much more!’ It can be frustrating when you come up against people who don’t share your views, but having a wide variety of skills, personalities and perspectives within an organisation is usually a good thing. As none of us are exactly alike, you and your board/CEO/manager might have different ideas of what success looks like. So when you are creating beautiful comms plans to improve the reach/profile/image of your organisation, agree from the outset how success will be measured. Think about gathering qualitative data such as comments from supporters, as well as showing the big numbers like social media reach.
  2. Learn from others, but don’t stand for being held in comparison. Nothing gets my hackles up more than the throwaway comment that ‘Such and such has achieved such and such and they’re exactly the same as us.’ No organisation is the same and being compared to another that may work in the same cause area but have a different approach, ethos and focus – or a team three times the size of yours – is not helpful. Learn about and from your competitors so that you can bat these unhelpful comparisons back like a pro. CharityComms publishes numerous case studies from other organisations to help us learn and grow as a sector.
  3. Be proud of being the expert! I was at a meeting once where, on being challenged on their plans for their area of work, a colleague proclaimed (tongue-in-cheek), ‘I’m not saying I’m the expert in X… but I am the expert in X…’ It was such a brilliant way of not only diffusing the situation but of reminding the challenger that they were not just pulling their ideas out of thin air, they were based on their vast knowledge of and experience in the subject. If, like me, you’re not normally comfortable being this bold, when you’re presenting plans always make sure you have some anecdotes from your previous experience and show what research you have done to help you field questions and challenges. The more we showcase our expertise, the more we will educate the uninitiated on what the profession is all about.

Until next time, happy communicating!

Director, Colvine Communications.

*CharityComms includes the following work areas in their description of communications: brand management, campaigning, consumer insight, digital and social media, fundraising communications, internal comms, marketing, market research, media relations, policy and public affairs, public/external relations, publishing and information, reputation and risk management and social marketing (behaviour change).

10 top tips for young campaigners

Last year, I was honoured to work with Envision to share my top tips for campaigning at their ‘freshers’ fair for young people embarking on social action projects focused on encouraging their peers to lead healthier lives.

If you’ve logged on or tuned in to pretty much anything over the last few weeks, you will probably agree that us more seasoned campaigners can learn a lot from our younger counterparts (I’m thinking particularly about the movement set in motion by schoolgirl Greta Thunberg)! But just in case the younger generation of changemakers need a little bit of advice, here are my 10 top tips for young (or new) campaigners!

1. Plan!
As the saying goes, “Fail to plan and plan to fail.” Campaign plans don’t have to be huge detailed documents, but the more time and effort you can put into planning, the more likely your campaign is to achieve its goals. Your plan should be based on the time, resources and budget that you have, and should cover at least the following areas: Goals, target audience, activities and evaluation. Activities might include: Key message development, resource production, website build/updates, social media, PR, partnership development and research.

2. Get to know your audience
Think about who you need to reach to make your goals a reality. It is helpful to be as specific as possible – in campaigning, there is no such thing as ‘the general public’. You will probably have more than one audience depending on your goals. If your campaign is focused on young people, then your other audiences might include parents, teachers, the media and others that have an influence on their lives.

3. Decide what you want to achieve
Setting goals that are specific, achievable and time-bound will help you focus your activity and measure your success. For example, if your campaign is about promoting healthy eating amongst 16-18-year olds, one of your goals might be to set up a Facebook support group and recruit 100 members. Another might be to get 500 signatures on a petition to ban fast food restaurants within half a mile of your school.

4. Choose the right channels
Once you know who you want to reach, you will need to do a bit of research to find out about their habits. What social networks do they use? Where do they go for news? Who do they listen to? Remember that channels can be offline as well – leaflets and posters can still be powerful campaigning tools. The number of channels you focus on should be decided depending on the time you have – it’s better to do two or three well than do 10 badly.


5. Involve the right people
Some say that there is no such thing as a new idea. That might be debatable, but it is likely that there are other people and organisations working towards similar goals to yours. Find out who they are and approach those you think are most relevant with ideas about how you can further each others’ cause. For example, if your local NHS is campaigning on a similar issue, ask if one of their experts could be an official spokesperson for your campaign (giving your campaign extra kudos and their expert some extra airtime). Interview them and use the soundbites on social media, or in posters and press releases.

6. Use imagery
A picture really does paint a thousand words – we are far more likely to remember images than oral or written information and images can also help communicate more abstract issues. Original images are the best, but make sure you have permission from the people in the photographs to use them for your campaign. If your issue is sensitive, it is sometimes best to use stock photography and video – there are plenty of free sites out there, including, if you don’t have budget to use providers like iStock.

7. Develop key messages
Once you have decided what you want to change, it is a good idea to develop two or three key messages that clearly state your goals. Good key messages state the problem, the proposed solution and the action you want the audience to take. For example, for a campaign with a goal of getting teenagers to be active for at least 60 minutes a day a key message might be: ‘Today’s teenagers are more obese than any previous generation. We believe that changing the school PE uniform will make students more comfortable about taking part. That’s why we’re calling on all students to sign our petition to the head teacher to ask them to agree to work with us to make these changes.’

8. Set achievable calls to action
The aim is to create calls to action that motivate people to take action and will make substantial progress towards your goal. Calls to action should be clear and specific, and people need to see how the action they are taking will make a difference. For example, if your campaign goal is to support overweight teenagers to slim down, a call to action to ‘Support the teenagers in your life to eat healthily’ is too vague. A call to action that states something like ‘Please donate to our crowdfunder to provide school children age 13+ with portion control containers to help them pack sensible lunches’ would show your audience exactly how they can help.

9. Find out who your audience listens to
People listen to other people who are like them – people they admire and who share their own beliefs. That’s why an effective way of reaching your audience – and have them listen – is to get other people to do the talking. Find out who your audience listens to and ask them to get involved in your campaign. If you are running a campaign to stop teenagers taking up smoking, tap into their interests and explore who would be best placed to deliver the message. For example, for those interested in sport, this might be a local athlete who can talk about how smoking can affect performance.

10. Learn as you go along
Your campaign plan should include a section on evaluation to show how you will measure the effectiveness of the campaign at the end of its first cycle. But it is also useful to evaluate as you go along so you can learn what is working and make changes to improve your messages, activities etc, and to ultimately make your campaign more effective. For example, if you are using Facebook to inspire action, at the end of each week see which posts are performing the best and which ones are performing the worst. It is likely that the successful ones will have something in common – discover what this is and use them as a guide for future posts.