Archive for the 'Communication skills' Category

Avoiding the perils of firsthand victim stories

September 12, 2011

This fall, I’ll be part of a workshop for advocacy and service groups at ECPAT International’s general assembly in Paris. ECPAT is a global network of more than 81 groups in 75 countries that work on the issue of child sexual exploitation. I’ve been asked to offer suggestions about how to engage adults to tell their stories about sexual exploitation in their childhood or youth. Getting former victims to share their stories publicly can be hugely effective in terms of generating media attention, public awareness and action. It’s not risk-free though, for the organization or the former victims.

As a child welfare social worker turned PR professional, I have approached the prospect of using firsthand stories from two perspectives. My public relations work involves helping organizations get their stories told in a way that is compelling. I know the best way to do this is through firsthand stories.

As a social worker who has worked with children and families who have lived through sexual abuse, I realize that going public with this kind of victimization is a huge step and one that needs to be considered very carefully.

There are a number of potential pitfalls for both sides—the former victim and the advocacy or direct service organization. There are some measures organizations should take to increase the likelihood of a successful collaboration with former victims.

  1. Find stable participants – Those willing to come forward don’t always have the necessary emotional stability and grounded perspective on their past experience. That can cause problems for both the participant and the organization. Connect with a support group facilitator or therapeutic helper to find participants who have achieved the stability necessary to go public.
  2. Screen for ability – Not everyone is suited to tell his/her story in public, whether that be through a media interview, speaking at a conference or in a video. The participant needs to have the confidence to take center stage, to speak clearly and tell his/her story in a way that is compelling. Once you have a roster of potential participants, interview them yourself and determine if they have what it takes. Some coaching may be required.
  3. Do perspectives align? – Organizations working with abuse victims or advocating on their behalf usually have a specific position on the causes of the problem and how, as a society, we should deal with it. Be prepared that the participant you are considering may not share those views. Even if you’re not asking them to comment in public on their views, the topic could come up, especially during media interviews.  Ask the potential participant about your organization’s perspective, ask them for their thoughts. Determine if there is a match or in the case of differences, whether you can live with them.
  4. Be transparent – The potential participant must be fully aware of the expectations and purpose of his/her participation. This is important not only from an ethical point of view but also to avoid having the participants back out when they discover they are not comfortable with what’s being asked of them. A contract is a good idea because it forces you to spell out exactly what’s involved and protects both your organization and the participant.
  5. Be realistic – If you’re asking the former victim to tell his/her story to the media, know that ultimately you have no control over how that story is going to be told. The participant needs to be aware of this. You can try to guide the journalist involved in terms of preferred language to use (e.g. “child sexual exploitation” rather than “child prostitute”) but there are no guarantees.
  6. Be prepared if things go wrong – Think of the risks involved ahead of time. What will you do if the media coverage is not what you or the participant expected? What if upon telling or viewing the story, the participant experiences post-trauma? Think it through and have a plan.
  7. Don’t forget legal considerations – In addition to having a contract, consider having a legal representative review the firsthand stories before you use them. If the participant is identifying his/her abuser, even in an indirect way, make sure there won’t be any legal repercussions. Fact check convictions, sentencing or court procedures the participant refers to for accuracy.

Has your organization used the stories of former victims in its advocacy work? Please share what steps you’ve taken to ensure success by leaving a comment.

Related post: Media promotion for non-profits doing sensitive work

Get read: make it short

July 18, 2011

Whether I’m assisting clients with a newsletter, Web copy or an annual report, frequently the  challenge is to help them to feel comfortable with less text. Annual reports are particularly prone to numerous long paragraphs explaining details of the many undertakings of their year. The thing is, no one is going to read it.

Whoever coined the phrase, “information snackers” to characterize today’s readers got it right. People are inundated with information at every turn and time is always at a premium.

Very few people are going to read a 40-page annual report, no matter the content. Think of how you read a newspaper or online content. Do you start at the beginning of a page and read through to the end of the publication, website or article or do you scan for headlines and keywords that interest you?

I’m not saying that there is never a time for more lengthy content but readers need to be really interested and committed to the subject matter to engage with it. By all means, make more lengthy content available for those people, but think about your writing as you would about introducing yourself at a cocktail party. You don’t begin with your life story, you introduce yourself with a few highlights such as where you live, work or by mentioning a common interest. If you connect  with the person,  you then convey more about yourself.

It’s the same with whatever you’re writing. Assume that your donors, supporters, customers or stakeholders will only read headlines and one or two paragraphs at the most on everything you write. If you can keep content that short and to the point, you’re ahead of the game. You need to get key information out quickly or you’ll lose your audience. Use large blocks of solid text that run on for several paragraphs and you take the risk that your intended audience will not read any of it.

Here are five tips to keep your content brief and readable:

  1. Start by writing key messages in bullets – This sets the stage for being brief and encourages you not to include unnecessary information. From here, you can build short paragraphs and weed out unnecessary words and phrases.
  2. Get an outsider’s opinion – Find someone who is part of your intended audience and get them to read your content critically. What info are they drawn to and what do they skip over? Cut or edit your content accordingly.
  3. Read other content similar to yours – Read the annual report or newsletter from another organization and critically examine what you read and what you skip over. Go back to your content and try to view it with the same perspective.
  4. Make it look as short as possible – Use bullets, lots of headlines and text boxes with additional info and don’t feel you need to fill every page or screen to its margins. White space gives the perception that the content is manageable and breaking up your writing as much as possible allows readers to “snack” on what’s there.
  5. Get an outside writer – A professional writer outside of your organization can help pare down information and determine what needs to stay and what can go. He/she will also be skilled at using the fewest words possible to communicate key messages.

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Will your media reputation help during a crisis?

February 22, 2011

When an organization faces a crisis one of the biggest stresses is managing the media attention that can come with it. Often, the inclination is to “duck and cover” in the hope that the media interest will go away. Of course, staying silent only makes things worse. Just as important as what and how you communicate during a crisis is your communication with media when your organization is not in crisis mode. The reputation of your company or nonprofit will shape how media cover the story and how the public interprets it.

There are a number of aspects to corporate crisis communications. I’ve outlined the basics of creating a plan to cope with crisis before it hits in a previous post.

When it comes specifically to coping with the media attention associated with a crisis, the reputation you’ve cultivated through media relations and other public relations initiatives can help or hurt you at this critical time. If you’ve been responsive to media requests, extended yourself to get information to reporters quickly and treated various outlets equitably, your organization is more likely to weather the storm.

Yes, media strive to be objective, but humans are involved.  If you’ve built a positive relationship with reporters and news outlets, it will likely influence them to cover how you are handling the crisis more favourably. You don’t want the first impression of your company to be that of an organization in crisis. So strive to tell the story and good deeds of your organization on a regular basis.

Also, although it’s counterintuitive when you’re facing a crisis, make an effort to reach out to media before they reach out to you. Initiating media contact sends the message that you are transparent, concerned about getting the facts out and to dealing with the crisis proactively. Again, reporters are more likely to perceive your message positively if you reach out first than if they have to drag a few words out of  you after hounding you to make a comment. Silence leads to suspicion.

Pursuing a media relations program as part of routine business makes sense for a variety of reasons. When it comes to coping with a crisis, it’s like an insurance policy. If you have credibility and positive working relationships with reporters you’re several steps ahead of companies that don’t.

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*photo by Sasa Wolff (Flickr)

Avoiding guest speaker disaster

October 13, 2010

I started my career in public relations at a child protection agency. One of my first challenges was putting together the annual report and preparing for the annual general meeting. The AGM was a traditionally humdrum affair and I thought I’d make my mark by getting an out-of-the-ordinary guest speaker. I suggested to my executive director that we get a client to speak at the AGM—someone who had turned things around and made a better life for herself and her children. A brilliant idea had I made sure it was executed properly.

I put out a call to various front line workers for suggestions and got a few. One client had a particularly compelling story. She had several years of involvement with child welfare authorities with her children coming in and out of care due to her alcohol abuse and neglect. She had many ups and downs but through a lot of hard work and intensive support, she reunited with her kids and all had been going well for the past couple of years.

I spoke with the client and she had many positive things to say about her present social worker and the support she was receiving from the agency. I told her I thought her story would be great and she agreed to do it. I let her know she’d have about 15 minutes to speak. I spoke with her briefly one more time before the AGM to make sure she was coming and to see if she needed any help with her speech. She declined, saying she was feeling prepared. I left it at that.

The day of the AGM, the client stepped onto the stage and began to tell her story. About a minute into it, my heart began to sink. My chosen speaker was trashing the agency. She spoke of systemic issues that led to the apprehension of her children rather than the preservation of her family. In a somewhat rambling style, she talked of insensitive and, in her view, incompetent social workers she had encountered over the years. Her comments did include praise for the support she ended up receiving, but overall, her message was that a lot of her family’s heartache could have been avoided if the child welfare system had responded to her situation with initial support instead of its punitive approach.

The audience, which included a good percentage of staff, gave weak and bewildered applause at the end of the speech as my executive director awkwardly thanked her for her comments. I wanted to die. The next day, at an unrelated meeting in one of  our field offices, a couple of social workers lambasted me for the choice of speaker, saying that they had come to expect being vilified by clients but not at their agency’s own AGM. Ouch.

Today, I avoid the above scenario by taking the following steps when engaging a speaker:

  1. Know your speaker – whether it’s a professional speaker or someone who uses your nonprofit’s services, speak to people who know the person well or who have heard the speaker at other events. Make sure the person is the right fit for your purposes.
  2. Let the speaker know what you’re expecting – Never leave it up to the speaker to figure out what you want. Make it clear who the audience is, why you want him/her to speak and what you’re expecting in the way of comments.
  3. Help out the non-professional speaker – If you are asking someone to speak who has never spoken in public before or has limited experience, guide him/her through the process. Offer to meet, help to draft the comments or refine what the speaker has pulled together.
  4. Know what your speaker is going to say – Even if it’s a professional speaker, make it clear that you need to know what he/she plans to say to ensure that it fits with the rest of the program and doesn’t overlap with what someone else is saying. Experienced speakers expect this and will often ask you these very questions.

You can never prepare too much for a public event and that includes making sure your key speakers don’t surprise you when they open their mouths. Avoid embarrassment and potential disaster by taking the above steps.

Have you ever been caught off guard by a guest speaker at an event? What steps do you take to ensure the experience is positive?