Blog Insights
The Power of Smart Communications

This year’s Communications Network Conference in Detroit left a strong and optimistic impression on me and my colleagues who attended—from the passionate ways people are using communications to accomplish social progress, to the impact the ComNet community has in contributing toward new ways of approaching the digital nonprofit space.

We’ve come home from ComNet in Detroit passionate about: 

  • Playing the long-game to change hearts and minds. From Aaron Belkin we heard about the DADT campaign having a clear goal, providing a consistent slow drip of content and news, and evolving to adjust to circumstances.  The approach we work with clients on for digital strategy is similar—have clear metrics of success, pursue a consistent steady outreach effort, track and assess your metrics, and regularly adjust following the “agile” methodology. 
  • Working against ongoing segregation, which Charles Blow described in discouraging, and accurate, terms. His comments fire us up even more for our ongoing work with the website for the newly-opened Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture
  • Partnering with uncommon influencers to help reach key audiences and get them to pay attention. We’ll be working with clients to find uncommon, and non-traditional content providers, as well as atypical “influencers” to achieve this. Interested? Give me a call!

Here are a few of the ideas we took away from the gathering of about 650 communications leaders from foundations and nonprofits.

ComNet is Focused on Improving Lives

I’ve been to about ten ComNet annual conferences, and I must say that this one was the most inspiring throughout. ComNet Vice-chair, Jesse Salazar, set the tone from the outset with a reminder of ComNet’s mission to, “improve lives through the power of smart communications.”


Lessons From the Repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”

Aaron Belkin spoke about the ten-year campaign to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, the official policy from 1995 until 2011 on US military service for gays, bisexuals, and lesbians. Aaron spoke about how the military had been dismissing LGBTQ servicemen and women  since George Washington’s army, behind arguments of “unit cohesion” and “military readiness.” Aaron talked about the campaign’s  strategy to play the long game; a slow drip of consistent and newsworthy messaging to convince the public that they’d been lied to about the argument of military effectiveness. For example, a report they produced would not make the news on its own; however, if it were co-signed by a retired general (or supported by 104 of them), then it would be prominent in the news. And it was.  

Aaron also commented that too many organizations are overly focused on their own visibility, and less on, “changing hearts and minds.”  I noticed a lot of heads nodding, some even wincing. 

Read more in this terrific SSIR interview of Aaron by Sean Gibbons, including a closing question about whether the DADT strategy would work on other big global problems like global health. “The question would be whether there are any big ideas in global health that are serving as the 10,000-pound boulders standing in the way of progress. If the main obstacles in a particular social justice movement are beliefs, then the same strategy we used could work.”

Race and the Prejudice of Popular Culture

Charles Blow of the NYTimes lit a fire under the conference with his frank comments about race in America in 2016. (He’s the author of the memoir Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which Henry Louis Gates called, “a profoundly moving memoir of Charles Blow’s coming of age as a black boy in the Deep South.”)  Blow spoke about how schools are now more segregated than after the Brown vs Board of education Supreme Court Case. “People are separating themselves on purpose.” He spoke about how prejudiced popular culture is, beginning with children’s books where white kids have exciting adventures, while black kids have to learn to be proud of their skin color and ethnicity. 

When asked about what he, and what other African Americans could do to help educate non-African Americans about prejudice, he replied: 

It was also great to hear him describe his writing process, in terms with which we could all relate: 


Not Your Typical “Influencers”

The AdCouncil led a terrific session about how to find and use YouTube and celebrity “influencers” as key vehicles to spread messages to a wide public. We often talk about communication “influencers” as meaning the media, bloggers, key thought leaders, and senior policy-makers, so this was a change. 

The AdCouncil’s Kate Emmanuel and folks from Upworthy and Campbell Ewald spoke about how to assess which influencers would be effective for a specific cause (e.g., through social listening tools), how to entice them to participate (e.g., B-list influencers might be more likely to contribute than A-listers), and how to then best leverage their audience and influence. Some of the exciting examples they shared of this included: 

  • John Cena, a beefy, white, pro wrestler, speaking about how being a true patriot means embracing the crazy diversity that is America. The video has been seen more than 1.7 million times in the past three months and was also featured in AdWeek.  
  • For an HHS campaign about fatherhood, the AdCouncil and Campbell Ewald found existing online home videos of fathers spending time connecting with their children in fun activities, and used these non-traditional influencers in this wonderful campaign.

ComNet Upward

We were excited to hear about ComNet trying hard to create a community which spans its annual conferences. We’ve enjoyed in the past year the regional ComNet gatherings in DC, LA and other places. And we like the plans for a new online community area for ComNet members. This will help us all arrive to next year’s conference in Miami with even more momentum than usual!

Give me or my team a call if any of these ideas excite you and you’d like to conspire to try some new approaches!

Are you ready to create impact?

We'd love to connect and discuss your next project.