Five Takeaways From #frank2015

It’s been several weeks since the frank 2015 gathering and I still find myself re-reading the pages of notes I took on the ideas, insights and inspirations I heard over the course of the gathering.

In the spirit of frank’s mission to “connect people who speak for the greater good”– and to keep the conversation going–here are some takeaways I keep coming back to and you might, too:

Yup. Storytelling is still important. Chad Boettcher, executive vice president of social action and advocacy at Participant Media told us that “a good story can change the world,” a theme that echoed throughout the conference. Whether used to foster empathy for an issue, provide a window to understand a social problem or put a human face on numbers, storytelling can move a message forward. Similarly, Ai-Jen Poo, author of “The Age of Dignity” and the director of Domestic Works told us that “we are an interconnected web of relationships, and storytelling opens that up for us.”

Carlos Roig, media and content strategist at Home Front Communications, encouraged us to learn from the way newsrooms have crafted stories for centuries. Journalists, he argued, have the skills to tell stories that attract attention, fill gaps in the public’s understanding of an issue, make sense of and translate research in a way that is accessible to the reader and delineate a clear path to change. Roig advised us to do our research, or as he put it, “understand an issue down to its bones. . . and then craft a solution.” Once we understand the issue at hand, we can craft stories that “meet audiences where they are, speak in their own language and propel them to the change we envision.” By harnessing the principles of journalism, Roig argued that we can artfully tell stories with clarity and depth.

Meet people where they are. Any message or campaign seeking to reach the hearts and minds of an audience has to start on their level. For example, the winner of a $1,500 frank research prize, social psychologist Dr. Viviane Seyranian of California Polytechnic University, Pomona, showed us that if we want to move people to action we have to speak to their sense of self and their identities – like political affiliation, gender, age and occupation. We must present the message and messenger as representative of our audience’s identity, through inclusive language such as “we” and “us.”

Another $1500 frank prize winner, social psychologist Dr. Sleeth-Keppler at Humboldt State University, similarly reminded us that who delivers the message is just as important as the message itself. If we are to reach disparate audiences that may be adverse to the campaign message, we must rely on trusted local leaders to gain people’s support. Such individuals may include church leaders, doctors, farmers and neighbors. As Sleeth-Keppler notes, “The messenger is the message.”

Progress doesn’t have to be perfect. We have to work with those who have resources to make long-lasting change. For example, Rich Neimand and Dave Clayton of Neimand Collaborative discussed a MasterCard public education campaign designed to provide economically disadvantaged and marginalized populations with access to financial services. The target populations, many of them Latino and African-American families, have little access to debit cards, credit cards, savings accounts and other financial services that provide minimal financial security. That limits their upward mobility, produces a second-class status, and can actually cost more because of additional fees for routine things like getting checks cashed. By partnering with MasterCard to produce debit cards that enables employers to directly deposit paychecks, for instance, this for-profit company is making substantial social change. As Rich Neimand noted, “If you want to create change, you have to work all of the angles… politics, policy and people. And you have to play in the marketplace. Markets aren’t perfect, and we don’t create perfect change, but this change can be more transformative than working with spare change to create perfection.”

Don’t be afraid to speak volumes. Great communications requires skill, passion and gall. Whether it is sharing personal struggles to inspire a community or tirelessly working to build a drumbeat for the cause, the frank 2015 speakers showed us that to create change, we can’t be afraid to speak volumes.

For example, Jenny Lawson, better known to her followers as the “Bloggess,” talked about the transformative power of online communities. Through sharing her own experience with mental illness and overcoming fears through her own blogging and in her bestselling book Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, she inspired an online community to come together and support and empower each other. 

Anastasia Khoo, communications director for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), discussed her decision to change HRC’s iconic blue and yellow equal sign symbol to red and pink – “the color of love” – as part of the group’s campaign for marriage equality. This color change triggered a viral response that far exceeded the organization’s expectations and became the most successful of its kind in the history of Facebook.

The switch was timed to coincide with the then upcoming Supreme Court cases on marriage equality. Every day for six months leading up to decision in 2012, HRC “had a singular focus about building a drumbeat,” said Khoo. While the logo switch was part of a larger and highly strategic effort, the new design happened because Khoo decided to just do it. “One of the keys to success is not ask anybody,” she said. But the biggest takeaway from Khoo’s talk is applicable to all social change efforts: “If you don’t treat it like a big deal, your audience won’t either.”

Have a Plan. Strategic communications is nothing without a plan, whether it is in the execution of a story or the building of a campaign.

For example, Jim Ross and Jennifer Webber, strategists who worked on the Lift Up Oakland campaign, a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage and provide paid sick days in Oakland, California, discussed how they used earned media to build support for the campaign. Relying on what they learned from polling, they designed a campaign that “drove the discussion,” where they were advocating and not responding to the opposition. The campaign had a large amount of media coverage, with a story published every three days until election day.

As a result, the ballot measure was passed and the minimum wage was raised to $12.25, and five to nine paid sick days were mandated.

Ross and Webber taught us to be transparent with our supporters and give them the tools – such as talking points, so they can be boots on the ground – and make campaign and messaging resources readily available to media outlets for coverage.

The frank gathering–like everything we do at frank–is about connecting those in the business of doing good so that we can make the good greater. As we keep learning, we’ll keep sharing here on the frank website and again, next year at #frank2016.

Posted: March 30, 2015