I do not enjoy “Communications” as a field. I think, honestly, it’s manipulative. The whole point of communications is to frame your issue in such a way that an audience sees it the way you want them to. Communications, PR, advertising, marketing and branding are all – no matter what anyone says to the contrary – intimately entwined. These fields are getting it on, if you know what I mean, and they’re reproducing, and who knows what they will spawn next? Facebook timeline. I rest my case.
Despite having no interest in communications, I stumbled into a job at a communications firm when I graduated college, and I have been trying, without much success, to stumble my way back out again for years. Working in communications has taught me two important things. One, communications is critical, absolutely critical, to getting anything done in any other movement or field. Two, I do not like it.
I guess the third would be: Three, most people and movements really suck at it.
To generalize in a pretty extreme way, there are two schools of thought in communications. The first school of thought is the “Product” school of thought, and it involves thinking. What is my product, brand, or message? What kinds of people am I targeting with it? How will those people react? What reaction and audience do I want? How do I achieve that? The “Product” school of thought involves building an entire communications plan with multiple, interrelated aspects. It requires your team to establish and stick with a tone and core messaging. That tone and core messaging needs to extend from traditional media placements like op-eds and press releases through social media such as Twitter posts. This kind of communications plan is meant to build and keep an audience or membership over time. In the tortoise vs. the hare, the “Product” school of thought is the tortoise school of thought. Confession: this is absolutely the school of thought to which I subscribe.
The second school of thought is the “Get it Get it” school of thought. In that school of thought, all press is good press. All attention is good attention. While the “Product” school of thought thinks, “Hey, a thing has happened, in the media! It is related to things we do. It makes sense for us to comment. People should listen to us. We know about these things,” the “Get it Get it” school of thought thinks, “A THING HAS HAPPENED. WE CAN DIMLY RELATE IT TO US, PROBABLY THROUGH OUTRAGE. COMMENT OH MY GOD COMMENT NOW RIDE THAT WAVE.” This school of thought will have big surges of attention, followed by almost no attention, because jumping up and down demanding to be heard is only interesting in the short term. This type of communications strategy will attract a large audience at times, but that audience is fickle and unreliable, with very little loyalty. This kind of strategy does not attract a dedicated membership that will be their for your company, organization, or brand through good times and bad, because your company, organization, or brand does not offer consistency. And if you are not consistent, your membership won’t be.
Having spent the last year actually working in the reproductive justice/prochoice movement, I have seen organizations employ both of these strategies. I have recently seen an upswing in long since established organizations, with dedicated followings of millions of hard-working members, alienate people across that membership by chasing the dragon of BIGGER NUMBERS and MORE ATTENTION. Here is what I say to younger people in the prochoice and reproductive justice movements:
Do not do this.
Do not do this, and what’s more, fight back when other people do it.
When you decide to work for an organization and you will be in any way part of their comm team – even if you simply contribute research that the comm team uses – look at their communications strategy. Listen to what they talk about. Do they know their audience, their membership? Do they understand how to talk to them? Are they willing to tell them things they don’t want to hear, because they can rely on their loyalty? Do they want to expand beyond that audience and continue to grow and reach out to other people? The answer to all of these things should be yes. If you and your friends are starting your own movement, group, or organization, ask yourselves these questions, and make sure the answers are all “yes.”
It can be hard when someone comes in with big ideas and changes the messaging in a way that makes you uncomfortable, because odds are, those changes will, in the short term, yield some big numbers. Suddenly, your organization may be receiving attention it didn’t get before. It’s hard to caution against that, because everyone likes attention. Here’s the thing: fight back any way. Recognize that sudden surges of attention based on drastic changes in messaging hit like bouts of hysteria, or like a night of heavy drinking. You’re in for manic highs in which everything seems so amazing you could shit rainbows followed by a terrible low alone at the police station waiting for your folks to pick you up and you don’t know where your friends are.
If you think I’m exaggerating, take a look at the Susan G. Komen debacle trajectory. It’s not a perfect example, because they weren’t looking for attention – in fact, they hoped no one would notice – and it wasn’t exactly a communications shift, although shifting communications was part of what happened. But the basic outline was familiar. A company that does one thing very well, with a wide membership base and lots of support, decides to make a drastic change to the way they do business. Many people within the company object and try to reason with them; those people are ignored. The Big Move is carried out anyway. Exeunt ship – sinking.
Communications are key to your piece of the movement you believe in, however tiny you may feel that piece to be. Commit to slow and steady growth to win the race. If your voice is young and spontaneous, don’t confuse that with erratic. If your voice is mature, don’t confuse that with immobile. Stick to a few key messages and talking points, and comment on current events where appropriate. I would love to see complementary pieces of the reproductive justice and prochoice movements working in beautiful tandem, where everyone feels they can find a place for themselves and their work. And we bring that about by communicating effectively what groups and organizations believe, in an honest and accessible way, and letting audiences and memberships find the place where they feel most comfortable.