Let's go back in time to Monday, October 8 — the Monday before ComNet18. Just as Lexie and Senongo were putting their finishing touches on our pre-conference workshop, the plans for our trip were suddenly up in the air.
Workers at the Westin San Francisco — the conference venue — were on strike (along with thousands of other Marriott-owned hotel workers across the country), citing dangerous working conditions, low wages, and other concerns. We didn't know where we'd be staying, where the conference would be held, and, more importantly, whether we'd be asked to sacrifice our values as an agency to cross the picket line.
The good news: We didn't have to cross any picket lines. The ComNet team decided to switch venues just a day before the conference kicked off. Kudos to them for the last-minute scrambling and what we can only assume were more than a few sleepless nights. You deserve the applause.
The better news: Just as in years past, we learned a lot, met dozens of interesting people, and left inspired and excited to incorporate some of the ideas we learned into our work. So yes, you guessed it! Here comes another conference takeaway blog post.
A brand's actions speak just as loud as words
From our perspective, one of the biggest themes of this year's ComNet conference was the role of inclusive, equitable communications and how an organization can be an advocate, ally, and facilitator of the change they seek in the world with their messaging and actions. Case in point? ComNet deciding to move the conference so no one had to cross picket lines. It wasn't the easy thing to do, but it was the right thing to do, and as a brand committed to improving lives through communications it was the only thing it really could do.
As nonprofit brand strategists, it can actually be challenging to articulate how a brand is a living representation of your organization's values, and how important it is to establishing trust between your organization and its audiences. ComNet showcased this idea perfectly. Not only did it switch venues at the last minute so as to stay aligned with its brand values, it also invited one of Unite Here Local 2's leaders onstage during the final morning of the conference to talk about what the protest meant to her, her family, and her community. Talk about using your brand as a vehicle to share the stories of others!
Storytelling is more than telling stories
Speaking of stories, "storytelling" has become a buzzword in the nonprofit world over the last few years. And for good reason: sharing the stories of the communities we work with is a great way to illustrate and build empathy for the issues we're trying to tackle. But storytelling isn't that simple. The stories we tell and the ways in which we tell them can make or break the way they are interpreted by our audiences.
Our pre-conference workshop, "With All Due Respect," touched on this idea: that while stories can be a powerful tool for change, they can also reinforce biases if they aren't told carefully. In her portion of our workshop, Lexie discussed the ways in which our brains fill gaps in stories with implicit, pre-programmed biases. To overcome that tendency, we should tell stories that make systems a leading character, explaining the connections between individual challenges and systemic barriers so the audience doesn't have to fall back on their own assumptions to connect the dots.
We dove a bit deeper into the complex facets of storytelling on Thursday morning at "What We're Up Against," the Second Stage presentation led by Shaun Adamec of Adamec Communications and Nat Kendall-Taylor of the Frameworks Institute. They began their discussion with the question: Why is it that our messages are so often misinterpreted by our audiences? In other words, what is it that comes between what "you say" as an organization and what your audience thinks you said? The answer is culture. More specifically, it's a set of pervasive myths that shape our interpretations of various social dynamics and issues. One of these is "fatalism," the idea that the problems we face are too big and deeply rooted to ever change. Framing our messages in a way that balances the problem with potential solutions is a powerful way to ensure that our audiences' brains don't default to a fatalistic way of thinking.
'Brand' isn't a bad word anymore
Ten years ago, it was uncommon (and unpopular) to talk about branding in the nonprofit sector. The "b" word, as we like to call it, was reserved for the for-profit world. But over the last few years, brand has become much less of a dirty word — in fact, brand was quite the topic of conversation throughout this year's breakout sessions. During one of ComNet's new Dialogue sessions, for instance, the Walton Family Foundation discussed their recent, large-scale brand roll out and the ways in which they used the process as a mechanism to generate enthusiasm internally across departments.
Of course, this is great news for everyone in the agency world, but it's also great news for the nonprofit world. Why? Stronger nonprofit brands lead to nonprofits with more focused missions, more engaged teams, and an increased capacity to create impact. Again, I could talk for hours about that idea, but since that's not why you're here, check out this link to learn more.
See you next year?
I could go on. But with your time and busy schedules in mind, I'll stop there. Actually, one more thing: Lena Waithe and Cecile Richards totally blew our minds with their insights about sharing stories and perspectives that otherwise might go unheard or untold. Can one of you please run for president in 2020?
Okay, now I'm done. See you next year in Austin!
Allison Murphy is a communications and outreach strategist at Constructive, where she leads the firm's digital and social media marketing efforts, assists with business development, drafts content for client projects, and helps nonprofits tackle one of the biggest challenges they face — accurately communicating who they are. This post originally appeared on the Constructive website.