Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Challenges & Opportunities Facing Communicators Today

Earlier this summer, I surveyed communicators working for Mennonite church-related organizations. I wanted to know their thoughts on the challenges and opportunities facing communicators today. 

Below find their responses. 


Amount of information. This is one thing everyone agreed about. People are overwhelmed with information. 

“The volume of news and information is staggering, and the speed with which it just keeps arriving can be overwhelming,” said one. “The communicator somehow needs to find a way to gain the attention, hopefully the sustained attention, of an audience ready to interact.” “We are living in a data smog today,” added another. 

Declining budgets. Although communication is more important than ever, it’s hard for communicators to get the resources they need to do all the things management and boards want them to do. The pandemic has only made it harder as donations decline. 

As one person put it: “An ongoing, and now amplified, challenge is to produce quality content that is relevant to our audience with next to no budget. 

“There is a need for increased and varied communication in a time when financial situations would suggest cutting expenses—but communication is disproportionately important right now,” added another. 

Denominational loyalty. There once was a time when groups could appeal for money and attention on the basis of group identity. No longer. People have choices, and just being a Mennonite (or Baptist, Catholic, Pentecostal, Anglican or whatever) organization or school isn’t going to cut it for many. It’s all about the offer; what difference are you making in the world? 

Diverse audiences. At one time, audiences were more homogenous. Not now. “The diversity of our audience is both a challenge and an opportunity,” said one. 

“With Mennonites worshipping in so many languages today, we need to think more about translating materials,” added another. “We need to do a better job creating connections with different racial and ethnic groups.” 

“There aren't many resources out there for connecting in the ways that we need to connect—across geography, culture, language, generation, etc.,” said another. “It feels like we make our way by walking, but it can be exhausting to try to figure it all out.” 

Competition. Most of the groups the communicators work for are small and stretched. “We lack the ability to produce the quality of larger, more well-funded Christian groups,” said one. “Often their materials give our constituents the tools they need that we can’t produce.” 

Multiplicity of platforms. Once upon a time, groups could get by with a magazine, newsletter and direct mail. Things are different today. 

“Different demographic groups use a variety of social media, so how do we choose which ones to engage with?” asked one person. 

“Do we have the staff time to learn and use them all effectively?  How do we engage with them, knowing that each social media platform is a culture in itself, but also that those using the sites have different cultures (so it's not about just copying and pasting what you do on one platform to another).” 

“The platforms are fragmented. Facebook for Boomers and Xers. Twitter and LinkedIn for business and news, Reddit and TikTok for younger folks,” said another. 

“We hired a full-time digital communications specialist to keep up. That’s where we have to put our energy,” offered a third. 

But not all are willing to do that. “Organizations are unwilling to pay what is required to hire expert communication professionals,” stated a fourth person. 

Youth. What about engaging youth? That’s a question on everyone’s mind. “Ask them. I ask my daughters all the time to suggest pieces that I should read or listen to or watch. I ask them to describe their media diet and how it is changing,” said one. 

“Experiment. Keep exploring ways to connect with folks under 40; they are your future,” said another. 

Involve them, said a third. “Organizations need to make space for younger voices in leadership and at board tables.” 

The growing edges of the Mennonite church are not represented in leadership in many organizations,” said a fourth.

“Be open to harnessing the knowledge they have, while offering mentoring at the same time,” added a fifth. 

Be bold, said a sixth. “Groups need to be less worried about offending older people and more concerned they are repelling younger people by not changing.” 

“Don’t be fake,” offered a seventh. “The threshold for B.S. by young people is zero. Messaging needs to be real and honest.” 


Yet all is not lost; there are opportunities today, too. 

More platforms are a challenge, but also offer opportunities to share stories in new ways. Social media is challenging, yet many people are on it—all the time. 

And unlike any other time, there are new opportunities for segmenting and targeting audiences. 

People saw opportunities with videos, but cautioned each video needs a plan. 

“I think it's important to start by asking very basic questions: Why do we want to share a message or content through a video? How often will the video be shared? Will the video have a long life?” asked one person. 

Also, “keep videos short,” said another. “Brevity matters. A short slide show on a topic is often as good as live action.” 

Formats and platforms have changed, but one thing that hasn’t is the need to tell good stories. 

“Telling stories disarms people and opens us up to the world of the Other,” said one. “Stories can be effectively told in words, photos, videos, tweets, poetry, and artwork. Focusing on the storytelling will take us far.” 

Then there’s all the data that can be collected. “Use data to drive storytelling,” said one person. “What are people interested in reading or watching?” 

Advice for Non-profit Organizations 

I asked them what advice they’d give an organization that wanted to reach them. Here’s what they said. 

Tell stories. “What I'd like to hear are stories from people who have been touched by an organization. I'd like to get to know the people who have benefited from it. How are their lives different because of its work?” 

Storytelling all the way,” said another. “But pay attention to whose voices are being featured and who the heroes of the stories are. Watch out for paternalism or romanticism.”

Testimonials. “I'd welcome hearing from government officials or NGO officials about their high regard for the organization as a hard-working, faith-based organization,” said one. 

Tell us what we can do. “How can more of us get involved? Is there work for people who are ready to show up and contribute?” asked a third.

Find new ways to connect. A younger person noted that many groups she donates to only send her things in the mail. “As a younger, primarily digitally-based person, most of the time I didn't even open them,” she said. “Diversifying communication channels would go a long way.” 

Challenges and opportunities; what do you think?

Many of the people I interviewed are members of Anabaptist Communicators, a networking and support group for communicators working for Anabaptist-Mennonite organizations. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Fundraising in Time of COVID-19: How Will The Pandemic Affect Your Giving?

How will COVID-19 affect your giving?

That’s the question that was posed to a group of friends meeting recently (online).

It came from the head of an international relief and development agency, which is anticipating a deep fall in giving this year.

The group included several retired people, one semi-retired, and a couple still in the regular workforce.

The consensus was we all will still give—just not give as much as before, or to as many charities.

For those on fixed incomes, who give a percentage of their incomes, they will give the same percentage. But due to the falling stock market, that will mean smaller amounts this year.

Others said they will still give, but likely give less due to reduced earnings and general uncertainty about the future.

Some said they will adjust their giving. They will continue to support key charities of great importance to them, but maybe drop some “extras” they give smaller amounts to.

Everyone said they were taking a pause in their giving right now, due to the pandemic. They indicated they would be open to giving if an organization gave them a compelling COVID-19-related reason to give right now.

None in the group are rich; no charity will rise or fall based on our giving. But we are faithful and regular, the kind of people charities depend on.

For the questioner, the answers were both positive and concerning.

It was positive, he said, to hear that we were still committed to being generous. But he also understood the circumstances facing the group; his agency will need to reduce its expectations for this budget year.

What will happen to your giving during COVID-19?

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Communications in time of COVID-19: How Not to Write an Appeal Letter in Time of Pandemic

“I wanted to share a story with you about Rachel.” (Not her real name.)

That’s how an appeal letter I received in early April began.

The appeal asked me to provide support for Rachel, an entrepreneur in an African country.

Apart from the passive tense (“I wanted to share”), what is most jarring about the opening line is how if fails to immediately recognize the pandemic crisis we are facing in here in Canada.

No acknowledgement our lives are all disrupted, with most people working from home and some already unemployed. All of us worried, anxious and uncertain.

The writer—the CEO of the NGO—never once acknowledged my situation, or how I might be feeling.   

In normal times, it would be a fine appeal letter. But these are not normal times.

To her (slight) credit, the CEO did note the world has changed since Rachel’s story was first written—for her. But there was no acknowledgement it has changed for me, too.

In fact, it never even used the words “virus,” “COVID-19” or “pandemic” at all. I needed to infer that's what changed for Rachel.

In fact, the only reference to the pandemic was a plea in the P.S. for me to give online so staff wouldn't have to come into the office to handle the mail. That and delays in the postal systems, which means they don't get money fast enough.

Of course, noting the impact of the pandemic here in Canada would not change things. There’s nothing they can do about it; none of us can.

But not acknowledging how it is affecting donors is a huge mistake.

It suggests they don't care about me, my employment, my business (if I own one), my health, or my ability to even give at a time of such great uncertainty.

It was tone-deaf, in other words.

To be clear I’m not suggesting groups stop fundraising; important programs still need to be supported.

And I realize fundraising appeals are planned months in advance. It can be hard to stop the machinery once it is set in motion. (But it’s not impossible.)

So if I'm so smart, what would I have done? Thanks for asking! Here's my suggestions.

First, right at the top ask about me: How I'm doing. Acknowledge these are strange and difficult times for everyone.

Second, be vulnerable. Acknowledge your own fears and uncertainties personally, and for the vulnerable people your organization supports.

After that, tell me about people like Rachel and the challenges facing her and others like her in the developing world—challenges far beyond what I am facing here in Canada.
Then invite me to continue to stand with Rachel, even if I can't give as much as I ordinarily do. (Acknowledge my income and finances have been affected the pandemic.) I am still part of the solution, even I can’t give as much as I used to.

That's what I would do. How about you? What fundraising approaches are you using these days? 

Monday, March 30, 2020

Communications in time of COVID-19: Canadian Christian Communicators Watercooler Webinar

The challenges of planning print issues months in advance, working remotely and getting used to new technologies—those were some of the issues discussed at the March 27 Canadian Christian Communicators COVID-19 online “watercooler” webinar.

Titled Communications in Time of COVID-19, the webinar was held to offer encouragement, support and ideas during this challenging time of pandemic.

For editors with print editions, the amount of time needed to plan an issue was a big challenge.

Since monthly magazines can be planned up to five months ahead, what seemed like a good idea back then can seem incredibly tone deaf now.

For example, one publication has a cover feature about medically assisted dying for May—not the theme you want to promote when thousands may be dying against their will due to COVID-19.

Since it’s too late to change everything now, the editor re-wrote the editorial to tell readers about the challenge of planning so far in advance. As well, a few other news articles were lifted in order to include some about the virus.

Another editor pulled a feature on euthanasia for the same reason. A third dropped plans for a travel issue (nobody is travelling these days), and a fourth decided this wasn’t a good time for an issue about hospitality—inviting others over to your house.

“We don’t want to come across as tone-deaf, but there’s always a lag in time from when you plan an issue until when it is printed and mailed,” an editor said. “Readers don’t always understand that.”

The exchange prompted one participant to suggest the CCCA needs a new award category for 2020 and maybe beyond: The most poorly-timed article. That drew some wry laughs!

Another challenge facing editors is their calendar of events; those also are planned well in advance. As events were cancelled, someone needed to constantly change the section for the print edition and make changes online.

Also challenging for anyone else who publishes a printed magazine or newsletter is whether any printers will be open to print them, or mailing houses to mail them.

In some provinces, only essential businesses are allowed to be open, while in others they are closing due to lack of business and to keep their employees safe (social distancing).

In other words, there is no guarantee something designed today can even be published and mailed a month from now.

When it comes to working remotely, the challenges include something as simple as comfort; some editors and writers don’t have access to the standing desks they use at work. Others don’t have access to work computers, copiers or quality printers.

As well, directing a team remotely provides challenges. Some had already begun working on this, although not as much as they hoped. “Slack is our friend,” said one.

One publication was ahead of the game—it has no head office. Everyone works from home and operates remotely.

“We have already worked hard to build connections,” the editor said. “It has helped for a time like this.”

But that poses different challenges, she added, since most of the writers are working moms whose kids are all at home now that schools and day cares are closed.

Getting work done while homeschooling or looking after toddlers isn’t easy, she noted.

Everyone was using Zoom, which led to jokes about going to meetings in pajamas and needing to clean up their offices or dining rooms.

Other issues included making sure they had good internal communication with staff who were now working remotely, and keeping all stakeholders informed—internal and external.

One participant talked about how they are having a twice-weekly “coffee break.” She opens a Zoom meeting and is prepared to visit with anyone who wants to join the non-mandatory meetings for casual conversation and updates.

A unique challenge for one participant who works for an international relief and development organization is nobody is talking about COVID-19 and the developing world.

“It’s a challenge to get the message out to the media,” she said of how the virus will devastate some poor countries. “How can you wash your hands if there’s no water?”

It was suggested that editors of church-related magazines could be of assistance by saving space for an article or two about how the virus is impacting the church in poorer countries, or the work of church-related NGOs to address the crisis.

When it comes to fundraising, everyone agreed they are in the same boat—not knowing if or when it is appropriate to appeal for funds. It was suggested that if groups have spring appeals they continue with them; keep the rhythm, but make sure to acknowledge the situation facing donors and everyone else in the world.

One thing everyone noticed is the higher view rate on social media, for e-mails, and more views online. It’s like everyone is at home with nowhere to go or something!

Monday, December 2, 2019

Future of Newspapers: Less Print, More Digital, Alternative Forms of Funding

What do the mainstream media and Christian denominations have in common? Great histories and uncertain futures.

That’s the view of Bob Cox, publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press and chair of News Media Canada, an umbrella group for newspapers and radio and TV stations in Canada.

At the same time, they share another important thing: “We have a mission that we feel is crucial to the communities we live in,” he stated.

Cox shared that perspective on November 20 during a webinar with members of the Canadian Christian Communicators Association (CCCA).

He went on to say while newspapers like the Free Press are facing severe challenges, “demand for what we produce, news and information, has not gone away.”

According to the most recent data from Vividata, the Free Press reaches 64% of adults in Winnipeg, and 64% of Winnipeggers say they read a newspaper in some form, he noted.

Nationally, things are similar, he said, with 79% of Montrealers, 68% of people in Toronto, 76% of people in Victoria accessing newspapers.

“Basically, about three out of every four Canadian adults get news from newspapers every week,” he said.

Good news: People still reading newspapers, but new ways of consuming news

But if people aren’t abandoning newspapers, it’s also true they aren’t consuming them the way they used to.

That same data from Vividata shows many newspapers in Canada have digital audiences larger than, or the same size as, their print audiences, he said.

This includes the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Toronto Star, Le Devoir, the Ottawa Citizen, the Calgary Herald and the Windsor Star.

All of these “papers” are “actually majority digital media or close to it,” he stated.

“We’re fast approaching the tipping point where all daily newspapers will have primarily digital audiences.”

Bad news: Falling advertising revenues

While its good news that people are reading newspapers, the bad news is financial support for them as fallen dramatically.

“In many ways this is like a lot of churches that have widespread community support but empty pews so they don’t have enough donations to keep their doors open,” he shared.

A chief reason for the financial drop is how local businesses, which used to support newspapers with advertising, spend more and more of their advertising dollars on Facebook and Google.

Those ad dollars, which used to support local journalism, now “leave the community,” he stated.

Nationally, Cox said, ad revenues in newspapers have fallen by half in the past five years to about $1.5 billion from $3 billion, and that $3 billion is half again of what existed a decade ago.

More bad news: Drop in circulation

Added to that is the change in consumer habits, as readers who used to buy subscriptions go online expecting to get news for free.

The result is a significant drop in circulation. Cox said the Free Press sold about 250,000 copies on Saturdays in 1984; today that figure is 73,000.

Nationally, the number of printed papers sold is half what it was a decade ago, he noted.

And yet, surveys show people still really value local news, he said. “They see it as a public good that is vital to the democratic health of their communities. They just don’t want to pay for it.”

According to Cox, only about 20% of Canadians are financially supporting news, either through subscriptions or donations.

The result: Media in a precarious state

This isn’t just a problem for newspapers, he added.

“Most people are unaware of the precarious state of local news, the fact that all local TV stations lose money on news,” he said.

The result for all media is less money for local news gathering, print, TV or radio.

“In many communities there remains the appearance of news sources, since newspapers still publish, but there is not the reality of local news, as very little money is put into news gathering,” he said.

“They call these ghost newspapers.”

So if readers are moving to digital, is that were newspapers should be placing their bets? Yes, said Cox, but it isn’t easy.

“Most of the newspaper industry is not positioned to survive the switch to digital,” he said. 

“The majority of their revenues are related to the sale of printed copies and the sale of advertising in those printed copies.”

Digital revenues not filling the gap

At the same time, digital advertising isn’t filling the gap left by the decline in print advertising.

The Free Press, he said, has digital revenues of about $5 million a year and expenses of $45 million—nowhere near enough to help keep it going.

Some bigger newspapers, like the New York Times, have made great strides, he said, and may soon earn enough from digital to cover the costs of its journalism.

But the Times has 3.2 million digital subscribers and a national audience, he observed. “Most of us are not in this game.”

What are the solutions?

If those are all the challenges, what are some solutions? Cox had a couple ideas if newspapers are to survive.

The first is to give up the printed newspaper—if digital revenues aren’t keeping up with expenses, the only thing left to do is reduce expenses, Cox said.

That means cutting print.

“Most of the $45 million in annual expenses at the Free Press is related to the cost of producing a manufactured good every day,” he said—things like buying paper, paying press operators, delivering the paper.

The newsroom budget, on the other hand, is only about 15% of total expenses.

“Strip away all the manufacturing and you have expenses of about $12 million to produce and present digitally all of that journalism,” he stated.

If that’s the case, $5 million of digital revenues “looks a lot more promising,” he stated.

And if only 20% of Winnipeggers subscribed to the Free Press digitally, he would be able to meet that budget, he stated.

“It is only when we embrace this future, and put our best efforts into achieving it, that we will really have our heads around keeping the newspaper alive,” he added.

The second idea is to find alternative, non-traditional sources of revenue to support journalism.

This includes things like what the Free Press is doing with faith coverage—soliciting support from faith groups to produce more articles about religion.

It also involves government support.

This includes funding for journalists to cover so-called news deserts—communities where there is little or no local news reporting anymore.

It also includes a refundable tax credit for employing journalists; a tax credit to encourage people to take out digital news subscriptions; and allowing news organizations that operate as not-for-profits and receive donations.

Although the federal government has spoken affirmatively about these ideas, Cox said, nothing has actually been done yet.

For him, this is a problem.

“Time is of the essence. I first went to Ottawa in January of 2016 to talk to bureaucrats and politicians about the crisis in newspapers and we’re still waiting. Government simply has not moved fast enough.”

Important to be honest and engage public more

The media also needs to engage the public more and make them aware of the dangers facing local news, he said.

“The general public is only vaguely aware of the threat,” he said, noting after a Quebec newspaper declared bankruptcy people in the local business community pledged more than $1 million to the newspaper.

“The problem is that we all don’t want to have to declare bankruptcy to find out if our communities will support us.”

Surveys have shown educating the public on the benefits of local news, and the fact that it is in trouble, increase the likelihood of support.

“My advice to people in newspapers at all levels is to tell readers about what is going on,” Cox said.

“Don’t cover up financial troubles, explain them. Give people the information that will allow them to act before it is too late.”

At the end of the day, “public support is the only hope we have,” he stated. 

“It always has been.”

Friday, November 22, 2019

Frustrated by your non-Communication Colleagues? Think of Them as Toddlers

Over my 36 years of doing communications for non-profits, I have come to respect and admire my colleagues who manage and implement various programs.

They are smart and amazing people who find creative solutions to challenging issues such as poverty, hunger and the effects of natural disasters.

And yet, they often drove me crazy.

No matter how many times I’d tell some of them, they would still forget to let me know when they needed help with communications—a press release, poster, graphics, website change or whatever.

More than once someone would rush in apologetically to say they meant to let me know sooner, but they need it tomorrow. Could we bail them out?

(Sometimes they never told us at all; we’d find out about it after the program was launched, sometimes through the media.)

Some of my communications staff became really annoyed and aggravated by their repeated shortcomings. But it never got me down.

The secret? I learned to think of my program colleagues as toddlers.

That sounds disrespectful. I don’t mean it to be.

What I mean is like toddlers, my program colleagues couldn't help themselves. 

They promise to let you know in plenty of time about their communication needs, but they just can't remember.

Like toddlers, they were self-centred.

Not in a bad way; their world simply revolved around the important task occupying their attention. It's was hard for them to think about other things, like communications and fundraising.

Like toddlers, they lived in the moment.

They couldn't help it; they were so busy sometimes they could barely breathe.

Like toddlers, they weren't malicious.

They didn't intend to make my life miserable. Stuff just happened. Time got away on them. Plus, they are really, really sorry.

By thinking of them as toddlers, I could avoid becoming angry and frustrated.

It provided a calming effect: They really couldn't help themselves! That’s just the way toddlers are.

I’m not knocking people who work in other departments at non-profits. They do amazing things in their areas of specialization. I was in awe of their abilities.

But they weren't trained to think like communicators or fundraisers. That wasn't their skill or interest.

And it didn't apply to everyone. Some followed guidelines about timelines and deadlines scrupulously.

They did everything correctly when it came to getting the support they needed from communications and fundraising staff.

Those people were special, angels sent from above, and we did everything on heaven and earth to assist them—even if they occasionally forgot.

But the others? Toddlers. Cute as a button sometimes, but still prone to disappoint us.

So the next time a colleague forgets to give you enough lead time for a press release; or fails to invite you in early for conversations about a new program or project so you can set up a good communications and marketing plan; or applies for a large grant that requires matching funding but forgets to tell you so you can budget and plan for it; don’t think of them as fully functioning adults.

Smile, and think of them as toddlers.

From what I can tell, it’s the only way to have a long career in communications, marketing and fundraising.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

When it Comes to News, What's Really on Your Phone?

For decades, pollsters have known people lie when self-reporting about how they pay attention to news. That’s why it’s so hard to trust those kinds of surveys.

When asked what they watch on TV, for example, people might say documentaries about the state of the planetbecause they know they should. 

In fact, what they mostly watch are comedies and other forms of escapism.

Nothing wrong with that. It's just that you don't get accurate information about what people are really reading, watching and listening to.

That’s why counting clicks online has become the media’s best friend.  

It's not the best form of measurement, of course. But through what people click on publishers can tell what people actually like—not what they say they like on self-reported surveys.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism took this to heart it wanted to know how much people under the age of 35 in Great Britain and the U.S. were actually reading news.

They started by asking them what news apps they had installed on their phones—something that shows interest and even intent.

It was simple, really. They asked participants in the study to give them their phones so they could check battery usage for their apps.

As anyone who has checked knows, the apps you use most take the most power.

And the results?  

Although the participants had downloaded news apps, the battery usage reports showed they actually spent very little time on them.

According to the study, no news app was in the top 25 apps used by participants.

In other words, while they may have intended to follow the news, in real life that didn’t happen.

But if you only asked them what news apps they had on their phones, you might mistakenly believe they were avid news junkies.

Admittedly, the researchers had a small sample size; just 20 people between the ages of 18 and 35, half in the U.S. and half in the UK. So we need to be careful about drawing too many conclusions.

But the results once again reveal the truth as explained by Derek Thompson in an article in Atlantic Online in 2015: "Ask readers what they want to eat, and they'll tell you vegetables. Watch them quietly, and they'll mostly eat candy."

What’s on your phone?