Getting it right!

It’s been a week of reflection over here. Picking up silly errors that we should have noticed before publication, working out why certain social media content soared and others failed. And it came after my last post on handling disappointment in communications.

So I thought I would launch a series of posts on how to avoid the most common mistakes – how to be the most effective communicator you can be.

This isn’t a groundbreaking topic, obviously. There are no shortage of articles and blogs talking about common mistakes that people make in communications, especially social media. Almost every communications or social media or marketing blog or website will have a version of this somewhere in their archives.

You might think this is just another one of those same-same posts, another bunch of posts on “common mistakes and how to avoid them”.

But its not.

I’m not talking to a company trying to tell their wares, or someone trying to drive traffic and get ad clicks and likes.

I’m talking to you, the entrepreneur and the non profit trying to get their voice heard in a sea of equally important voices.

The small business or the entrepreneur trying to be found.

Over the next little while, I will look at common communication mistakes – not just social media, but all media, and why these are a problem for you and your emerging business or non profit. And then, obviously, what you can do to try to minimise them.

They include things like going to where your audience is (which means knowing where they are!), constantly reviewing and adapting your approach for success, and targeting your content for your audience and message.

So stay tuned over the next few weeks while I talk about how to avoid common mistakes many people make in their communications and what you should watch out for!

Not sure if you are making some of these mistakes? Get in touch!


In the aftermath of the Australian Federal Election, a lot of people are reeling with disappointment. Disappointment about the campaigns run by both sides, the nasty tone that characterised much of the public debate and many (in fact a healthy proportion of the voting public) will be disappointed by the result.

I am not going to deal with the ins and outs of the campaign, or my personal feelings on the outcome. But the disappointment many people are feeling made me reflect on my own experience as a communications professional.

Recently, a long awaited, eagerly anticipated and well promoted event had to be cancelled.

The reasons for the cancellation are irrelevant, although I will say that they are incredibly frustrating (albeit not uncommon in this context) and left a nasty taste. There just were not any ways to get around it though, we all looked for alternatives and options, and ultimately, cancelling was the best option.

And so we cancelled. Postponed actually, but the loss of momentum, interest and senior representation mean it has been as good as cancelled.

It was so deeply disappointing.

I’m not going to sugar coat it, or try to say how positive the experience was. It really wasn’t. And it often isn’t.

Disappointment is the communications professional’s constant companion. The event that didn’t happen. The photo ruined by a mistimed blink. The compelling Facebook post that… didn’t.

All opportunities missed to share your message.

Some days working in communications it feels like you hear more ‘no’ than you ever hear ‘yes’!

So what can we do about it?

First and foremost, we plan for it. Think about what you are trying to achieve and what the risks are. Maybe someone won’t show up. Maybe the venue will be rained out. Or maybe the funds will dry up. Whatever it is, think about those risks and how you can mitigate them. You don’t need a massive complex risk management matrix, but having a good think before an event of what can go wrong is a really helpful place to start. Draw on your experiences from the last time running a similar event, or speak to others around you who might have that experience. Consider the context and cultural or social factors that might have an impact.

There are plenty of templates for this kind of thing, or you might like to try my free checklist (coming soon!).

But what about if something unforeseen happens? Something we couldn’t have planned for, couldn’t have predicted? That is what happened in the case of my event – a completely unforeseeable situation arose. Frustratingly, for this event, there aren’t even lessons for next time, it was so out of the blue!

Communications professionals are used to operating flexibly, adapting quickly when the situation changes and responding to unforeseen circumstances. In many cases, you can adapt, shift the focus or attendees, or maybe the timing. Think creatively about how you can salvage the event as best you can.

Refer back to what you want to achieve rather than remaining focused on what you had planned.

But sometimes, there is just nothing that can be done.

At that point, you need to be brave enough to admit that, and call the event off. Maybe try to plan it again for another time or another place, and take away the lessons from the unsuccessful attempt with you. Roll with the new situation, adapt, and try to stay positive.

And accept that sometimes, disappointment is just part of being in communications.

So like all of those who are disappointed in the election result, whenever something happens that you just can’t work around, accept the frustrations and disappointments and try to work around them – but also take a bit of time to reflect on what went wrong and what can be done better next time.

And good luck…!

Want to better disappointment-proof your communications? Get in touch!

What has always worked doesn’t always work

In the leadup to the Australian Federal election 2019, the two candidates for Prime Minister faced live television to convince Australians of their relative merits and the other’s weakness in a lukewarm and bland televised debate. Putting aside the awkwardness of the debate and the widespread well-deserved criticism of the actual event, it has lead to an interesting side conversation (exemplified by this post on The Conversation) – why are we still doing this?

The political and social landscape of Australia is vastly different now to when the first televised debate was introduced in the 1980s. Social and digital media dominate as influencing how people make up their minds on issues, or indeed how many people actually find out information in the first place. Just over 600,000 people watched the debate, which is actually an increase from the 415,000 who watched the first debate in the 2016 election, also between Morrison and Shorten. Although televised debates still have a major role to play in some countries (America being a notable example, with the Clinton/Trump debate watched by 84 million viewers in 2016!), they clearly are not as relevant in the contemporary Australia.

And here in lies the point I want to make.

Just because something has worked in the past, or in one context, doesn’t mean it will always work in every context.

As a communications professional, this is critical. We need to be constantly watching what we are doing, checking results and adjusting our approach.

For example, video posts are often touted as the way to engage with audiences. However, in countries with limited internet bandwidth, such as across the Pacific, video posts take up precious MB that literally translate into money out of a viewer’s pocket. Viewers are not watching a 10 second video of a cat, no matter how cute it is, if it’s going to indirectly cost them $2 every single time! So for these audiences, a different type of post is going to work far better – lower bandwidth photos, perhaps some simple text or an interesting graphic.

Similarly, when non-profits like World Vision and Save the Children realised that the long-standing use of starving and desperate children in emotive advertising appeals was in fact deterring potential supporters, they quickly changed to a more positive form of appeal.

As these examples show, at best, using the wrong approach means wasted effort and time, something none of us have in abundance. At worst, it can actually turn off supporters, make them un-follow our social media or direct their limited charitable contributions elsewhere.

Despite these risks, obviously, using what has worked in the past can often be a solid technique. There was after all a reason it worked, and often those reasons don’t change quickly enough that a strategy needs to be changed every time. It is also generally the quickest and easiest way to get something done, people are familiar with it so it is often quicker to get approvals, and there can often be cost benefits to reusing old approaches or relationships.

For communications professionals, the biggest lesson from the Awkward Debate is this – before committing to a course of action, we need to pause, take stock, think about our objectives and tools, and critically assess our past approaches and results, and make a decision about how to proceed with all of this in mind. Not just thinking about what always used to work.

So when thinking about to approach your next communications opportunity, take a moment to consider – are you planning an activity just because it worked last time or somewhere else? Or are you planning it because it is the best way to share your message and suited to the audience?

Not sure how to change your communications from what always worked to what works now? Get in touch!

Campaigns gone wrong

This week in Melbourne, protesters for animal rights blockaded the main intersection during peak travel hour. It caused mass chaos and disruptions. Every news channel ran multiple pieces about it and everyone has an opinion, including all over twitter. But not all in a positive, supportive way. Not even most. Instead, there has been a massive and quite vehement backlash.

The protesters are even being called ‘terrorists’.

Once the word terrorist is being thrown about, however hyperbolic, your cause is lost.

This is how you get the wrong attention.

The same risks can apply to poorly thought out campaigns for NGOs. Caught up in the swell of excitement and enthusiasm around the conference table, an idea can seem brilliant and you can’t see how it can possibly go wrong! It will surely be another ‘ice bucket’ challenge, that raised over $115 million for ALS research, with celebrities rushing to throw fairy floss at a cat or whatever creative and wacky idea you come up with.

But then it hits the real world. And suddenly, your Twitter feed is overrun with photos of assaults, shootings and  people literally asleep at the job – as happened with the ill-fated 2014 NYPD twitter campaign that saw thousands of tweets of ‘unfavourable’ images of NY police in response to a request for ‘photographs with police officers’.

Development and humanitarian campaigns are far from immune to the risk of campaigns gone wrong. Perhaps even more so, since they are so often starting from a point of having to educate audiences about the very existence issue and tell them why they should support it.  

Kony2012 is an oft-cited example, with the highly publicised downfall of its founder and the resulting criticism of the campaign. However, despite this, it raised $28 million for its cause. Not a small amount of money! Successful to was the 2015 UNWomen HeForShe social media campaign. It resulted in 1.2 billion conversations on social media and mobilised hundreds of thousands of people, including celebrities, to talk about gender equality and get men and boys engaged

So what does a successful advocacy campaign look like?

  1. A successful campaign makes use of emotional appeal. This is critical in getting people to care about your cause. Everyone has a story of a time when they were either a victim of or witness to sexual harassment, leading to the momentous #MeToo movement. For a successful campaign, you need to find a way to get audiences to relate to your story. Why should they care? Why should they be involved? Yes, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) is a totally valid emotion to play on!
  2. Successful campaigns take advantage of influencers. Celebrities are no longer the only possible influencer available to NGOs, although they are an important one – the presence of websites like Look To The Stars that outlines the charitable pursuits of many celebrities is evidence of that. But for the right cause, there are a whole array of potential influencers – Instagram personalities, online gamers. These people are not without pitfalls though, which need to be accounted for when considering whether or not to incorporate them into a campaign plan. If done well, this can be an incredibly powerful tool – if done badly, it can alienate audiences.
  3. Make use of multiple channels. Don’t just rely on your Facebook page or Twitter to engage audiences, but diversify – incorporate multiple channels, as well as offline and online mediums to share your message. This does mean you need to know where your audience is hanging out (which I’ll talk about in another post), but diversifying gives you maximum chances to reach potential supporters.
  4. Successful campaigns are creative, innovative and interesting. In the sea of voices trying to be heard, it is important to stand out, and creativity is essential. However, it is important not to go so far that you risk your audience not being able to engage with your message. If you are targeting bureaucrats, a Snapchat campaign is not going to make a difference!
  5. Include a call to action. Campaigns that seek to raise awareness are great, but people like to feel that they can do something, get involved, make a difference. This could be anything from sign a petition, write a letter to a political representative or donate to the cause. Without that call to action, people won’t feel as engaged in your message, won’t remember it as long and won’t feel the level of personal commitment that you need for them to become a committed supporter.
  6. Don’t lose sight of your message and your identity. It can be easy when preparing a campaign to get caught up in the moment and the emotion. But you should always make time to step back, make sure the messages and mediums you are using are truly reflective of who you are.

So there are a few tips on running successful advocacy campaigns that shouldn’t end up with you being called a terrorist in mainstream media!

Not sure how to start your next campaign? Get in touch!

All in a name

An aid program by any other name would still be as sweet…

The Australia aid program just has a branding problem.

That’s the implication of a recent interim report by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade following an inquiry into the effectiveness of the aid program in the Indo-Pacific.

In addition to increasing the aid budget, the committee recommends that the aid program should be maintained, even increased… but it should have a name change.

This recommendation is a great real-world demonstration of the importance of branding. The committee is not arguing for cessation or cuts to the Australian aid program, despite domestic pressure in recent months after devastating disasters in Queensland, and cynical cuts in the most recent Federal budget. It is arguing for a re-branding, to overcome the negative perception of ‘aid’.

It isn’t the product, it’s the name

There is no disputing the power of words, names. Marketing gurus argue strongly and frequently that the name of a business is integral to its success, with this Forbes article pointing out that people literally change their names in the pursuit of success – and it works.

So what does this mean for communications professionals? It points a very important lesson – choose your words carefully!

Every single word you use conveys a particular meaning. Choose the right word, the right image, and you get a positive reaction in your audience. Choose the wrong word, convey the wrong impression… and you might get nowhere… or worse, face a backlash.

This means that each word you use in any document should be precisely selected. Not only does this usually mean you can deliver your message using fewer words, but it also means less ambiguity or confusion for your audience – leading to more understanding, more support and hopefully more funding!

There are ample resources out there for helping to choose the right word for the meaning you are trying to convey.

But there are a few key things to remember:

  • Your audience comes from any number of different cultures, languages and experience. This means a word that conveys one concept to one reader, may say something else to another. So keep your language simple and concise, plain English, avoiding clichés or phrases that are very context or culture-specific and that might alienate or confuse readers.
  • Don’t assume a level of knowledge in your readers! Even if your piece is being written for a reader who should be intimately familiar with the topic you are discussing, you might end up landing on the desk of the new graduate, the intern or just the over-worked bureaucrat who hasn’t got time to do more than skim the document and needs it to be as simple and digestible as possible.
  • Avoid ‘weak’ language – make sure your language and tone are active, persuasive but without being patronising or alienating readers.

And above all, remember not to use the word ‘aid’ anywhere!

Not sure if your communications approach hits the mark with audiences? Click here for a free assessment to see how I might be able to assist you!

Everyone can communicate

It seems fitting to start by describing my approach to external communications.

Communication is how we share who we are, what we do, what we need. 

But communicating externally is often seen as a whole different beast to just writing reports or communicating with colleagues, especially when trying to share a message with donors or supporters.

So we end up with a spectrum of “Non-Communicators”. People who just don’t do external communications, whether because they don’t think its their job or important, or because they just don’t think they can do it.

Today I’m talking to those people who think external communications just isn’t something they can do. The people who don’t see value in external communications, I’ll talk to you in a later post…

I remember one very stressed out program manager, on receiving a set of detailed edits to a story she had submitted for review, sent back a distressed response that she just couldn’t possibly do what we were asking.

I’m a program manager, not a communication person, I can’t do this!

Which is just wrong.

Everyone can communicate!

We just need to learn how.

Communicating externally isn’t something special or unique. It is just an extension of the same skills and approaches you use every day. That policy brief you’re especially proud of, the project proposal you contributed to, the amazing idea you had about how to fix a problem your team were having on the ground, the program report you spent days and weeks writing – those same skills that got you there are what you need to communicate externally too.

Think about what makes you interested, why you read a newspaper article or a social media post. The first step in making good external communications is always identifying the Who Cares (which I’ll discuss in more detail at a later date). Is there a particularly good story you’ve come across in your monitoring missions, or a really engaging beneficiary who could tell their story – and by extension the story of your NGO’s work – and reach people in a really effective way?

And then just write something. It doesn’t need to be perfect.

Because you aren’t aiming for perfection.

You’re aiming to just spot the opportunities and come up with ideas, write a draft. A draft or an idea can be refined and perfected. But you can get them there.

So program officers, if you hear about a nice little anecdote or achieve a particularly awesome result in your program, maybe that’s a story to tell.

M&E specialists? That inspiring woman who talks about her experiences in a focus group discussion on results, that could be a social media post. 

Head office policy workers? That brief you’re writing could include a personal story to make it real for the reader.

Anyone can do it. Sure, it takes practice and effort to get perfect. And written English in particular is a pain even for those of us who make a living using it.

But just give it a go!

The worst that happens is your idea goes nowhere but you’ve learnt a bit more about what your organisation or audience is interested in, and you can try again next time.

Hopefully, realising that you do in fact have all the skills you need will make external communications just a little bit less intimidating. And when you write your first draft Facebook post and it makes it online relatively unscathed by clearances or edits, or you get a policy brief out to the world that people download and actually engage with, maybe you will remember a time when you were scared to even give it a go, and think ‘why was I so worried, this is easy!’.

Readers, what about you, are you a Communican or have you been a Communican’t?

Think you might need a hand with your communications? Get in touch for a free audit of your external communications suite!