Messages Matter

Greetings from your guest blogger. I’m Sandy Beckwith, author of Publicity for Nonprofits: Generating Media Exposure That Leads to Awareness, Growth, and Contributions (Kaplan Publishing). Nedra asked me to contribute here while she was moving to the Los Angeles wilderness because she knows that I want to help nonprofit organizations learn how to work with the media in the most productive ways possible.

Today, I’d like to talk about message development because it’s one of the essential early steps of publicity planning – one that I think is frequently overlooked. It’s important to give careful thought to exactly what you want to say to your audiences not only through the media, but in all your organization’s written and spoken communications. What is it, exactly, that you need to get across to people?

Your message could vary, depending on the situation and circumstances. In some cases, your goal might be to communicate a message related to your organization’s mission or reputation. In other situations, you might want to communicate messages related only to a project or program you’re promoting, not the entire organization. Regardless, here’s the bottom line: If you aren’t clear on your message each time you communicate with the media, your publicity efforts will be less effective. Careful attention to messages allows you to get a little more control over the unpredictable – and generally uncontrollable – publicity process. Anything you can do to exert some control is good.

Message development is essentially a six-step process:
1. Defining the issue
2. Creating draft or preliminary messages
3. Testing the draft messages
4. Refining the messages
5. Testing the final messages
6. Adjusting the final messages

Here are a few tips to help prevent some of the more common mistakes in this process:

  • Don’t make assumptions about what your constituents do and don’t know or do and don’t care about. Do some research instead. My book includes an anecdote about a foundation that assumed the group it was targeting with a communications campaign was familiar with – and understood – a key medical term. Wrong. Focus group research put a spotlight on this inaccurate assumption, forcing the communicators to change their strategy.
  • Don’t get bogged down in the details of the issue. Craft a message that is clear, compelling and direct.
  • Include emotion. And that emotion should come from your constituents’ concerns, not yours. Find a way to connect your cause to their feelings, and your message is more likely to resonate with them.
  • It doesn’t matter what your colleagues or peers think of the messages you’ve developed. What counts is how the people you want to influence react – so test your messages with them.

Got a publicity question you’d like me to answer? Send a note to and I’ll do my best to answer here.

What a Thank You!

My favorite Israeli blogger Jameel shared a letter and certificate that his young daughter received after cutting off her long hair and donating it to an organization called Zichron Menachem – The Israeli Association for the Support and Assistance of Children with Cancer and their Families. The organization provides wigs to children undergoing chemotherapy who have lost their hair (similar to Locks of Love here in the US).

Soon after she sent in her donation, she received this letter back (translated from the Hebrew):

Dear [name],

Yes, yes, I mean you. You, who faithfully grew your hair for a long time and then cut it short (and sometimes, even shorter than you would have liked), just so your hair would meet the criteria of Zichron Menachem, just so you could donate it to sick children. You just wanted to aid children that were in a bad way.

When their hair started to fall out, in a bad way.

That is the first actual sign which proves to them that they are sick — with the terrible disease known as cancer, and breaks them emotionally.

And not only that, but when they suddenly see large faces looking back at them in the mirror. Too large. Missing too much. And at that critical moment, what is missing has a tremendous impact.

That is the point where they meet your hair. Your noble act returns their faces to them. Their self respect. Their self-confidence that everything “will be ok” and “I’m still myself despite everything.”

Your valiance is noble!

I want to thank you for your partnership with Zichron Menachem — for helping make a very difficult time, a bit easier. And I want you to know that how successful your effort is, every time I see a bashful smile from those mirrors, trying to love what they see. And they succeed.

There are other ways to contribute to Zichron Menachem. Visit our internet site:


Efrat Luxenberg
Public Relations

What kid (or adult, for that matter) wouldn’t be beaming after reading that letter? Who wouldn’t be pulling out the ruler to see how long it might be until her hair grew enough to send in another donation?

The letter is so effective for several reasons. It lets donors emotionally experience the impact of their donation with vivid details and a compelling story. It shows that the organization understands the sacrifice the donor made with their investment of time and effort in growing the hair, and then the potentially traumatic step of cutting it off. And a little flattery will get you pretty far, when it is sincere and well-deserved.

Kudos to Zichron Menachem for its marketing savvy, and yasher koach (loosely translated as “more power to you” or “way to go!”) to Jameel’s daughter for deciding on her own to participate in this worthy program.

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Beyond Words

Have you ever seen a picture that gives you the chills? Makes you feel like someone kicked you in the stomach? Have you ever had to avert your eyes from a photo because it felt like you were seeing too deeply into another person’s soul?

While searching Flickr for a picture to illustrate an upcoming blog post, I stumbled upon a series of photos by a photographer named Tom Stone, who goes by the username stoneth. His black and white portraits of poor and homeless people riveted my attention. In some cases he shares the person’s story, in others the photo speaks for itself. Never discount the power of a picture to provide an emotional charge to an issue.

cry for the departed

(homeless native american man, san francisco, 5/6/07)

father’s service
(homeless self described minister, sf, 12/13/06)


(homeless woman in tenderloin who’s suffered two nervous breakdowns, sf, 6/20/06)

kids with dolls

(young person panhandling beside teddy bear, sf, 2/19/07)

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The Meaning of Definitions

Richard Kearns, the poet-activist at, writes about two issues that at first seem entirely unrelated: the CDC’s description of AIDS, and the designation of Daylight Saving Time. After his requisite lovely poem, he writes:

seventeen years ago i belonged to a la-based gay men’s HIV-positive ASYMPTOMATIC support group. ASYMPTOMATIC was the functional word: it distanced us as far as we could get from AIDS. it was having it without having it. fear and shame and stigma captured in a moment of language.

had a love there whom i’ll call jerry, a blonde, blue-eyed hunk with fifty-two t-cells and a kiss that kept me alive. fifty-two t-cells made him happy. fifty was the cutoff. he didn’t have AIDS. he was ASYMPTOMATIC. he felt fine. he felt more than fine. i must agree he felt more than fine.

then came the day.

in an effort to make federal funding available to the shockingly growing national population of HIV-infected individuals, the us center for disease control (cdc) revised its AIDS “portrait” to include — among other things — persons with fewer than 200 t-4-cells. the cdc made this announcement on a monday. our support group met on tuesdays.

jerry came to the meeting in tears.

last week, he’d been free as a bee can fly, an HIV-positive ASYMPTOMATIC person. this week, he had AIDS. nothing else had changed. and everything.

that was the day jerry began to die. i will simplify the rest of his story and tell you he lasted about another year.

Later, Richard talks about the concept and history of Daylight Saving Time:

the us law by which we turn our clock forward in the spring and back in the fall is known as the uniform time act of 1966. the law does not require that anyone observe daylight saving time; all the law says is that if we are going to observe dst, it must be done uniformly.

while it’s not new to our lifetimes, the notion of dst has been around for most of this century and earlier. in the tradition of divinely-appointed kings who could not halt the tides by their bidding, it is an idea new with democracy, itself an exercise in social justice: an informed constituency can command the sun’s passage…

a democracy can command the time, it can alter the fall of daylight.

The implicit point that Richard makes with this juxtaposition of concepts is that definitions are powerful. The words we use to describe something can mean the difference between health and disease, between light and darkness. Jerry’s health status was exactly the same before and after the CDC’s pronouncement, but the new definition of a healthy t-cell count was essentially a death sentence. The sun is still in the same position in the sky as it would have been, whether we call it 6:00 or 7:00, but we can delay nighttime simply by changing the declared time.

Giving a name to something can also change its essence and give us power over it. People who were once thought to be getting senile as part of normal aging are now known to have Alzheimer’s Disease. Someone who hears nonexistent voices is not crazy but suffering from schizophrenia. Kids who once might just have been considered eccentric may now be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Beyond identifying and naming real patterns of phenomena, we can also use changes in definitions to reposition something that might be considered negative into a positive. I remember a handout I received once from a parenting workshop that showed how we could reframe what might be perceived as a negative trait in our children as a positive: so kids went from being “stubborn” to being “persistent,” “anxious” to “cautious,” “aggressive” to “assertive,” the quiet child is “thoughtful” and the chatterbox is “highly verbal.” All these characteristics that might drive parents crazy when the children are young could lead to future success as an adult if directed appropriately. Therapists often use this technique of relabeling negative characteristics to reflect an underlying strength and building on that in a positive way.

Conversely, smoking went from something that was a symbol of coolness to being a proxy for the tobacco industry’s desire to enslave teens in a lifelong addiction. Bronzed skin went from being a “healthy tan” to “sun damage.” The current battle over the definition of marriage is another example of the power of semantics to affect people’s everyday lives.

Words and their socially agreed-upon definitions often have implications beyond the dictionary. We can try to change those meanings through social marketing and harness the power of words to bring about positive health or social change.

Photo Credit: wiccked

Risky Business: How to Communicate About Risk

With the gathering storm on the East Coast, I was reminded of an exchange that I’ve often had with non-Californians over the years. It goes something like this:

Friend: California is beautiful, but I could never live there. I’m terrified of earthquakes.

Me: Yes, but you have winter. Many more people die every year from snow and ice-related car crashes than from an earthquake. And you know for sure that snow is going to happen at least several times a year. It could be a decade before another big earthquake hits.

Friend: I’ll take my chances.

Me [basking in warm sunny February weather]: Me too.

I’m not trying to rub it in for those of you on the East Coast, but trying to make a point about our perceptions of risk.

Having been through several big earthquakes, I know that there is a very small chance of one being personally catastrophic (though every time I’m up on a ladder I wonder whether that will be the moment the big one hits), and there is a much bigger chance of it being simply inconvenient. The more prepared you are, the easier it will be when (not if) it happens. But while I went on a huge emergency supply buying binge after 9/11 after I went through training to be on my neighborhood’s Community Emergency Response Team, I have to admit I’ve become complacent and not kept the supplies up to date. As the memories of that day, as well as of the last big earthquake ’round these parts, grow more distant, my feelings of urgency have faded as well.

Many factors impact how people think about a particular risk, such as:

  • Whether the problem has ever happened to them or someone they know
  • How severe the consequences are
  • Who is most affected
  • How common it is perceived to be
  • Whether it can be prevented
  • Uncertainty about how or when it happens
  • How often it is mentioned in the news or portrayed in entertainment media
  • Whether it affects a lot of people severely at the same time.

So, how can we communicate effectively about risk in a way that will make people want to take action, but without causing panic? The University of Toronto’s Health Communication Unit has a couple of publications about risk communication that are oldies but goodies:

While these publications are worth reading in their entirety if you find yourself having to communicate about risk as part of your job (or even as a well-meaning friend), here are some quick tips from “Developing Your Messages” to guide your efforts:

  • Respond as completely as possible to audience biases, misconceptions, feelings, concerns and needs surrounding the risk. That means you have to find out what people already know and believe about the issue and create your response based on that foundation.
  • Use language and concepts that the intended audience already understands, whenever possible. Don’t use jargon, acronyms or complex scientific descriptions that the audience may not understand.
  • Use magnitudes common in ordinary experience. Very small or very big magnitudes may be difficult for a nonscientist to conceptualize. Instead of stating a risk as 0.05, say that about 5 out of 100 people will be affected.
  • Emphasize cumulative probability over extended periods of time, instead of one-shot probabilities, when applicable. People are more likely to overestimate the likelihood of a risk like HIV infection for a single encounter, and underestimate the risk of repeated exposures over time.
  • Instead of expressing probabilities in quantitative (numeric) terms, try to use a qualitative term that is close in meaning. Rather than saying there is a 88% probability of something, use a term like “very likely” or “a good chance” to describe the risk.

Read the rest of the tips here (pdf). And I’d better go check the extra water in the garage and make sure we have working batteries for the flashlights. For my readers in the snow, be careful and stay safe. Hopefully your city’s snow removal plan is better than DC Mayor Marion Barry’s was when I lived there during the huge Blizzard of 1996: Spring.

Photo Credit: Night Owl City

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Satirical Thoughts

Last night’s Saturday Night Live was its usual not that funny self. It was a rerun from November, but I hadn’t seen it the first time. Especially unfunny was a sketch that was supposed to be an infomercial for Dr. Archibald Bitchslap’s marriage counseling method (video). I’ll bet you can guess from the name what the method entails. Here’s how the show’s website describes the sketch:

Our host Samantha Hawkins discusses an exciting new “interactive” way to solve relationship problems. She’s joined by couples Pete and Donna Longhorn, and Debra and Jody Preston.

The Longhorn’s problems stem from Donna’s spending addiction, and the Preston’s problems grew out of Jody’s incessant lying about “working late nights”.

Samantha introduces the man responsible for the revolutionary new technique that solved the couples’ problems, Dr. Archibald Bitchslap, founder of the Bitchslap Method.

Samantha runs a sample of the method demonstrated on the 10-DVD set: a montage of images of Samantha and Dr. Archibald Bitchslap employing the Bitchslap Method forcibly and verbally on a series of compliant mannequins. Dr. Bitchslap mentions that along with the 10-DVD set, you also receive a companion booklet: Bitchslap Your Way to a Successful Marriage.

I’m sure they didn’t mean to make light of domestic violence, but their satire fell flat to the point of being offensive (and I’m not easily offended).

Contrast this with Borat‘s brilliant use of satire to highlight the absurdity of the beliefs of antisemites and misogynists. I know many people were offended by this movie too, but I think it succeeded precisely because Sacha Baron Cohen exaggerated the character and situations to the point of absurdity, which made clear that he was making fun of those beliefs. (The fact that the laughably antisemitic Borat was actually speaking fluent Hebrew instead of Kazakh only added to the satire for me.)

The ultimate example of satire is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. Many at the time took his essay seriously due to its serious tone, thinking that he was actually proposing that poor Irish families sell their children to be eaten to raise money for the family. By exaggerating this normally ridiculous idea to the point of even suggesting how the children could be prepared (“I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.”), Swift gets in his real digs at landlords and political economists, exposing the state of the poor in Ireland.

So, what did SNL do wrong? Sadly, the Bitchslap method is used way too often in reality, with no humor involved. This sketch just reinforced the idea that this method works, without mocking who use violence against their partners or using absurdity to make an underlying point. It was just too close to reality for comfort.

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