We’ll Always be Beginners

Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Communications Network and CommA Fall 2010 Conference in Los Angeles with the help of a blog team, which is part of the conference’s 2nd annual Gorilla Engagement Squad.  This is a guest post by Lucas Held, Director of Communications at the Wallace Foundation.  Follow the foundation on Twitter:  @WallaceFdn

by:  Lucas Held

Technology expert Lucy Bernholz began her plenary talk Friday morning with a dare: She invited the 200 people before her to turn on the cell phones, offering to buy a cup of coffee for anyone whose phone rang.

“We don’t talk on them,” she explained, but use them to text or surf.

Well, not quite.

In fact, over the next hour, at least three cell phones rang, including her own. “I’m going to kill her,” she joked, adding, “it was my dogwalker.”

For some of us, those phone rings signaled the prevalence of old ways along with the new.

Yes, the world is changing fast. Bernholz’s blog, Philanthropy2173, is a fascinating guide to emerging trends that is always future-oriented. And the bumper-sticker description of her talk that she offered was: “Technology and markets are transforming the way we produce, finance and distribute public goods.”

But as the call from her dogwalker illustrated, much is staying the same.

And that challenges communication folks to join the networked world of social media – while not forgetting everything else that, depending on your audience, can still be important: speaking engagements that harness the power of face-to-face communications; conferences, like the Network’s; reports in all their various forms; partnerships with organizations that can help share important insights with members; developing websites that connect people to information they need; search engine optimization efforts to help people find what’s on them; advertising, and reaching out to news reporters, wherever they work.

What are we going to give up?

It’s tough to say.

But one answer Bernholz offered was to think less about extending our reach by drawing people to us, and more by joining those outside of us. Her example was the TED conference that was once closed but now permits others to build their own versions, called TEDx conferences. TED forecast 200 such events in the first year, but they are up to 600, she reported.

Given her emphasis on conversation, I asked Bernholz whether she thought foundations like Wallace that have created an information-rich website with useful knowledge should “blow them up.”

“If you have built an information-rich website, pat yourself on the back. And don’t blow it up.”

Keep it, she said, but also put your materials elsewhere where people can find it, like amazon.com.

“You don’t have to take your stuff off your website,” she said. “You have to be part of other places.”

That’s a challenge to current thinking. And so too was the suggestion by Sendhill Mullainathan that if our goal is changing behaviors, we need to think much more about psychological barriers to change. A Harvard economist, he’s gone beyond the current fad of research on economic incentives as motivators to behavior, and is focusing on barriers like: limited attention span; lack of self-control; forgetfulness; and distractions.

If people aren’t taking their pills, maybe GlowCaps (www.vitality.net) are the answer (and, by implication, not a communication campaign aimed at consumers.) We’ve long known that a major problem in medicine is patients who don’t take their pills. GlowCaps act like an alarm clock – beeping and flashing if a person hasn’t opened a bottle to take their daily dose.

And if people have a hard time changing their minds, he argued, why not communicate in ways that don’t ask them to challenge their current beliefs?

Although BMW automobiles are quite crash-worthy, consumers didn’t think of them that way. The breakthrough came with a new ad that shows a driver accelerating suddenly to get out of the way of a load that falls off the back of a rickety truck.

In other words, he said, BMW redefined safety to mean “swerving safety,” not crash-worthiness, in order to accommodate, not try to overcome, the existing mental model of BMW. And it succeeded. People did start seeing BMWs as safe. This may not be a totally new insight; good branding experts pay attention to what the market gives an organization “permission” to be.

Others, like Susan Bales of the Framework Institute might argue for the benefit of working to “reframe” issues by replacing one mental model with another. But both could probably agree with Mullainathan that often the problem may not be lack of communication, but that “we have the wrong model of what people think.”

And speaking of mental models, I used this space two days ago to muse on a few paradoxes. I’m not sure they have been resolved, but I’m leaving this excellent conference (kudos to Bruce Trachtenberg and colleagues) with a few observations:

  • The tenor of the conversation has changed. Network conferences eight years ago were filled with angst that communications “got no respect” in foundations. Not this time. Maybe that’s because, as Bernholz told us, “Data are the platform for change. And that puts you right at the heart of the revolution.” That’s an opportunity and a challenge for communications to step up to the plate.
  • The rise of social media raises uncomfortable questions about whether the new media will be a two-way street. As Bernholz asked, “Are you going to listen to different people, or just use it to talk louder?”
  • We’re going to feel like we’re playing catch-up for a while. As Bernholz said, “at the rate technology is changing, we’ll always be beginners.”
  • And, finally, I was reminded in a conversation Thursday with Jane Praeger, owner of Ovid Inc., that the biggest challenge may still be developing a sound strategy. That was a point echoed by Mark Chattaway, of Baird’s CMC, when he noted that: “for me the biggest challenge for people is to understand what their goals are. And the chairman wanting to be on CNN is not a strategy.”

In other words, communications planning that asks who the audience is, what’s the goal, and what channels make sense, still in fashion. And perhaps more than ever in the fog of uncertainty surrounding this emerging new world.

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