Retrospective: My communications evolution

FIRST IN COMMUNICATIONS (meaning the publishing industry, in 1990), there were printed materials, and there was the telephone, and the fax machine. We had computers, but they were blinking green cursors on black screens. We communicated through the books we chose to publish, and we promoted those books through the trade conferences and trade media.

SECOND (meaning a nonprofit organization, early 1990s), we moved from not communicating at all to communicating for the first time. We did this by creating reports that contained clear descriptions of who we were, what we did, and why we mattered. We communicated that last item through the stories of the people whose lives were shaped by the organization’s mission and services.

THIRD (meaning the philanthropy sector, mid-1990s to mid-2000s): We got the message that it was no longer sufficient to produce beautifully-designed annual reports and program reports and brochures (on very thick, glossy paper). WEBSITES were the new thing. At first, we understand that we needed websites with basic information about our organization—who we were, our history, how to contact us, what we funded. But then, some interpreted websites to be about more than just hanging out a digital shingle: it was also supposed to be a communications platform. What, though, to communicate? The latest research funded by the organization? Our point of view? (Foundations were noticeably skittish about sharing a point of view.) Stories of successful funding efforts—where entire fields of practice and advocacy were built? Or stories of failure, so others could learn? (We always said we wanted to learn, but never seemed to have the time. We started having too many meetings and too many emails.)

Who was on the receiving end of our website channel? Policymakers? (Who are the groups who “make” public policy—and who should be the groups who “make” public policy?) The media? Grantees and would-be grantees? Graduate students? Were they supposed to talk back to us? What is this comments feature supposed to do, anyway?

The bigger our ambitions for our websites, the more contentious these websites became. Websites became hotly-contested real estate, e.g., I want MY project or program to be featured HERE! I want us to share a point of view! I want people to be able to easily search and access everything we’ve learned and done as an organization. I want an entire landing page for my program area, and I don’t give a damn where it fits into your navigational structure and hierarchy and I also don’t care that my content has gotten exactly 1 page view in the last ten years.

Big public education campaigns became multi-dimensional. You needed digital capacity, media outreach capabilities, and eventually, digital media capabilities. You needed to build coalitions and you needed to engage in some heavy negotiations about whose logo was going to be prominently featured, and who got to be named a “partner” in a campaign as opposed to a “contributor.” Sometimes, for the sake of maintaining harmony, you needed to create One Campaign Brand to Rule Them All.

FOURTH (meaning the philanthropy sector, mid-2000s): Social media, whut? Non-communications people start asking you plaintively: Should I be twittering? I don’t have time to blog. I have too many meetings and too many emails! Is social media good or evil? (The answer was always: yes, and neither. It is a tool for communicating and listening. Period.) A common question: Where is this mythical 18-year-old intern who will teach me all things social media for free, instead of hiring yet another communications/PR firm for a million dollars to write 140-character messages for me?

(Only in looking back through a sharpened lens of equity do I understand how wrong it was to not pay interns.)

It dawns on us: We need social media guidelines. We need to specify when might be the appropriate time for the org to engage in social media and when we might want to shut the heck up. We need to give employees clarity about when they can tweet, and what they can say. We definitely need to pay attention to who’s saying what on social media. We may not need to start a thousand blogs under our own imprimatur, but we do need to listen to what others are saying about our work, which is also their work. We also need to take note of how many reporters now have Twitter handles.

FIFTH (meaning, philanthropy and nonprofit sectors from 2010 to 2015): Communications is now multi-platform, 24-7. The “media” still exists, but we have gone way beyond the traditional behemoths of print and broadcast media to a world where that fringe blogger you thought you could safely ignore in your communications strategy one day starts appearing on CNN as a pundit.

On the bright side, we are now seeing previously suppressed voices find outlets for expression. And people are starting to get good at visual storytelling. You are told, at various times, that videos should be no longer than 30 seconds, one minute, four minutes. You hear wistful aspirations from your non-communications leaders that maybe you can start creating content that goes “viral.”    

Your communications is now heavily dominated by content production—i.e., stories, podcasts, photos, commentary, etc. to get more people to engage with your organization, any which way you can. You are so busy running yourself ragged to produce new content, you often forget to promote what you already produced. You get better about this—you start to “bundle” and “re-share” your content. You talk learnedly about audience segmentation and engagement metrics even if you don’t understand these things, not really, so people think you have an actual strategy and plan.

Sometimes you sit down with your colleagues and actually create a strategic plan. It takes days and days to do it: you often need to go on a retreat, or you outsource it to a contractor, who will spend days and days chasing after you to get the required inputs to write a strategic plan that makes sense for your organization.

Communications becomes highly specialized. You or your team if you are lucky enough to have one are expected to do all the new-fangled stuff, but also the old-fashioned stuff, too: direct mail, conferences, press releases. There are people assigned to interactive, social media, brand strategy, print production, event planning. If there is just one person assigned to do all these things, then God help you.

The fundamentals still matter, thank God: writing, clear and compelling messages, picking your shots, readiness for crisis. But it is much harder to get people to commit to using messages consistently across multiple platforms. People are just too busy with meetings and email! If they are not in meetings, they are checking their phones for texts and messages and updates to their social media feeds. If they are not checking their phones, they have blocked off an hour for writing, or to take a walk.

And FINALLY: if you are me, in 2020, you realize that in your almost 30-year career in communications, you have learned some things. You’ve also gone through four years of a presidency where everything you thought you valued about communications—namely, truth, facts, persuasion, stories, doing good—is being sledgehammered into oblivion and confusion.

You see glimpses that the good parts of communications still exist: like stories that make you cry, or see clearly another person’s joy or suffering. You wonder what’s next when it comes to communications. Whether it is virtual reality, increased fragmentation of audiences, or old-fashioned, face-to-face gatherings, which people might crave post-COVID.

Whatever comes next, you hope you still feel the appetite and passion you do now for doing good things with communications.