On Message: 2019 resolutions for communicators

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It’s not too late to make 2019 resolutions. You see, there’s a new trend for a softer approach to goal setting: the “less this, more that” approach. This method is more about subtle nudges in the right direction and less about harsh deadlines for making change.

From my conversations with communication gurus (what are you all calling yourselves these days?) across various Slack groups, email, and Facebook groups, I gathered some resolutions that we could all adopt. More, or less.

Less speaking for others

In development communications, we’ve earned ourselves a bad rep for speaking for others. While traditionally it might have sounded noble, I think many of us are moving away from this type of thinking. The democratization of the internet, the Twitter ratio ... there are myriad reasons why this is changing. In the era of the front-facing camera, second-hand stories just don’t resonate with audiences anymore.

“Every day, we see the power of lifting up the voices of individuals with lived experience.”

— Julia Friedman, communications manager, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation

So, for communicators wanting to get their message out this year, it might be time to get comfortable with not being the messenger.

“Every day, we see the power of lifting up the voices of individuals with lived experience, and we remain committed to finding ways to bring those voices to the forefront of our work,” said Julia Friedman, communications manager at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

Hannah August, communications director at Women Deliver, put it this way: “In 2019, I want to hand the literal and metaphorical mic to our incredible partners around the world more than ever.” Attendees will see this at the organization’s triennial conference in Vancouver, Canada, this year, where young people, men, and women from global communities will take center stage.

After attending a series of “manels,” or all-male panels, last year, Trish Garrity grew frustrated hearing from panelists who didn’t represent the sectoral realities. For Garrity, account director at Fenton, this kind of imbalance hinders a diversity of solutions so desperately needed to reach the global goals.  

“It is beyond tokenism, it is a reality check on whose narratives we’re giving the limelight to and the insights we miss for not aligning the reality with the soapbox,” Garrity said.  

Amgad Naguib, communications senior director at Pact, agrees. His team is working to “alter the imbalance of who is heard and who is not” by co-creating content with the populations Pact serves, he told Devex.

“Beneficiaries have to be seen as shareholders in the change everyone is trying to bring about.  On our team, this translates into giving our ‘shareholders’ an equal voice through our channels and platforms,” Naguib said.

More ‘real’ content

In digital, there’s a constant tension between quality and quantity. But content creators can often feel subject to the whims of the fickle end user.

“It’s time to embrace the real in storytelling to demonstrate the immense ways development is changing.”

— Trish Garrity, account director, Fenton

“With so much content available, we have to create more meaningful, authentic, and relevant content that gives people a reason to choose to engage if we want them to have a real understanding of our work,” said Craig Minassian, chief communications and marketing officer at the Clinton Foundation.

Communicators, of course, still have the tough job of determining what is ”authentic,” or even “meaningful.” Depending on your goals, it could be the diversification of individuals on your feeds, showing pain points of development, making your content native to platforms, or leveraging tools that haven’t been part of your existing ecosystem.

“A platform like Instagram can take a viewer from a cake decorating demo to riding a bike alongside a health worker delivering a vaccine — it’s time to embrace the real in storytelling to demonstrate the immense ways development is changing. Why not do it live on Instagram?” Garrity asked.

Less focus on polarizing debates

If you’re wondering what keeps communicators up at night, look no further than the economics of the news business, what drives online traffic, and the fiercely polarized debates on issues such as climate change and refugees, Minassian said.

These challenges, together with growing mistrust for established organizations, pose both a threat and opportunity. It’s a threat to attention spans and leaves lower tolerance for organizations that refuse to address issues clearly and concisely.

It is, however, an opportunity for smarter storytelling, Minassian said. He believes that smart storytelling has the power to move the conversation beyond the false, politically motivated attacks to focus on how programs and partnerships are improving the lives of millions of people around the world.

More connected storytelling

The Sustainable Development Goals were created to align the world’s massive challenges and solutions. But with sectors often working in silos, global challenges are sometimes told through a single lens. Philip Carroll, senior manager of health advocacy at Johnson & Johnson, urged communicators to create storylines that link their issues to the wider causes and impacts.

“More and more as communicators, we need to tell the whole story and strive to do a better job at pointing out the intersections between sectors,” Carroll said.

Paula Bonde, communications director at World Food Programme USA, added that communicators need to “bridge the disconnect” for audiences, which means teaching audiences everything from the main drivers of issues to providing entry points for direct involvement.

“The massive scale of many global issues are enough to overwhelm even those people with the best of intentions [...] In essence, it comes down to building a bridge comprised of three elements: the what, the who, and the how to help,” Bonde said.

Update, Feb. 4, 2018: This article has been updated to clarify that the Women Deliver conference is triennial, and that Trish Garrity is account director at Fenton.

About the author

  • Carine Umuhumuza

    Carine Umuhumuza is a former associate director of communications at Devex, where she wrote about the latest trends, tips, and insights on media and communications for the global development community. Previously, Carine led digital initiatives at Devex for development agencies, major corporations, NGOs, and social enterprises.