We’re here in Ottawa for the Broadbent Institute Progress Summit!

2016 Progress Summit
Progressive organizers, activists and communicators from across Canada are gathered in Ottawa for the third annual Broadbent Institute Progress Summit. Some of Canada’s most experienced hands at organizing and communicating for political change have come, loaded with plenty of innovative ideas to share.

The Summit comes at a pivotal time for Canadians who support values like strong public services, environmental responsibility, equality and social justice. Big recent wins and promising opportunities go hand in hand with challenges and some worrying trends.

We’re still celebrating Rachel Notley’s victory in Alberta and Stephen Harper’s defeat nationwide. We’re also still smarting from the federal NDP’s disappointing results. And we’re looking south of the border at Donald Trump’s campaign with growing alarm.

And it’s not like the Canadian right has retreated into a corner to lick its wounds. Nor will the business lobby be vanishing in a cloud of pinstriped smoke any time soon. They’re hammering away at the NDP governments in Alberta and Manitoba, and buttressing right-wing governments, parties and policies everywhere else. They’re building their lists, sharpening their messages, and readying for the next big fight.

No rest for the righteous, then. Progressive Canadians have to keep building our skills and strategies, and deepening our understanding of our changing political and social landscape. Which is what the Progress Summit is all about.

And the agenda is the kind of thing you’d dream up in a best-case-scenario brainstorming exercise before sighing and saying “If only.”

Like welcoming remarks from Ed Broadbent himself, following a day-long training with Sara El-Amine, who leads President Barack Obama’s Organizing for Action movement.

And an opening presentation from Gloria Steinem, followed by a Q&A with Desmond Cole and closing reflections by Michele Landsberg.

And a speakers roster with names like Shannon Phillips, Christiane Taubira, Jeet Heer, Owen Jones, James Galbraith, Chi Onwurah, Cindy Blackstock, John Horgan, Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet and Andrea Horwath, and many more.

And our own Marie Della Mattia interviewing John Del Cecato, Obama’s ad-maker and the creator of Bill de Blasio’s now-legendary “Dante” spot.

The Summit is sold out, but you can catch several key sessions via webcast.

We’re proud that The NOW Group is the Progress Summit Partner. Building the Canadian progressive left’s ability to conduct effective, winning campaigns is why we go to work every day. So it’s thrilling to see an event like this take flight. (It’s also exciting to gather in Heather’s neck of the woods for the first time since she joined us!)

We’re here in force. Say hi if you see one of us — we’d love to catch up. And we’d love to hear about the campaigns you’re waging, and the victories you’d like to win.

The right word matters more than ever.

Oxford Dictionaries Twitter banner

Most of the communicators we know are a lot like us when it comes to writing: editing and rewriting and tweaking every sentence, every phrase, every word.

Because words count. The right ones can open people to new ideas and spur them to action; the wrong ones can close minds, weaken support and harden opposition. That’s why we’re so diligent about testing language in the research phase of a campaign. We want to know which words convey both the literal meaning and the persuasive emotion we want them to deliver. It’s why we prepare messages for communicators, and help members and supporters advocate your position as effectively as possible.

Words matter. And it’s kind of jaw-dropping when a dictionary seems to dismiss their importance. Read the rest of this entry »

As memories of Harper slowly fade, Heather Fraser tells us what’s next

Illustration of Harper fading to Trudeau

Our latest NOW Strategy piece comes from the latest member of our team, Heather Fraser. Our newly-minted Director of Research Partnerships and National Projects warns progressive Canadians not to let their warm fuzzies over Justin Trudeau keep them from holding the Liberals’ feet to the fire:

Just “not being Harper” and showing a little human decency is too low a bar. It’s time to set out higher expectations for our federal government. That means we need to be more active than ever and run smart campaigns to pressure the Trudeau Liberals to implement the change they have promised.

And to turn hope into progress, we need to do more than just hold the Liberals to their promises. The Liberal platform was vague, missing important planks and in some places just plain heading in the wrong direction. We need to advance our own agenda.

Read more here!

Meet the newest NOWster, Heather Fraser… and welcome back, Kristen Keighley-Wight!

We’re heading into 2016 with some pretty huge news, and we couldn’t wait to share it with you.

Welcome, Heather Fraser…

Photo of Heather Fraser

As of New Year’s Day, we’re welcoming Heather Fraser aboard as The NOW Group’s first-ever Director of Research Partnerships and National Projects—and our newly-minted Ottawa point person.

Deep understanding of audience is fundamental to great strategy and creative, so we’re thrilled to have someone as thoroughly steeped in opinion research as Heather overseeing our relationships with our research partners. (Any day now, we expect confirmation from the Guinness people that Heather holds the world record for Most Hours Behind the One-Way Mirror at Focus Groups.)

We could not be happier to have Heather’s strategic smarts—forged over 20 years of campaigning—join our team. She creatively fuses communications, research and organization into powerful, effective strategies that move opinion, change policies and inspire people to progressive action.

…and welcome back, Kristen Keighley-Wight!

Photo of Kristen Keighley-Wight

Our apologies to the tenants who work on the floor beneath ours in the Vancouver office: there were a lot of happy dances when Kristen returned from her maternity leave this week. She returns as Director of Creative and Production Services. It’s a new title, but it reflects what she was already doing for us: managing our dizzying array of production partner relationships.

We’ve missed Kristen’s rare combination of creative brilliance, MacGyver-esque can-do attitude and hard-headed organizational smarts. For the past decade, she’s been a big part of our most innovative communications, and we couldn’t be happier to welcome her back home.

We know Heather and Kristen are both looking forward to catching up with you in the new year.

Have a safe, happy holiday—and a terrific 2016.

“There’s a high cost in doing Muskrat Falls wrong…”

...there's power in doing it right.The government of Newfoundland and Labrador has sold the massive Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project as a giant leap forward in power generation. But to the people who live, fish and hunt in the area, it represents something much different.

To them, it means flooding 41 square kilometres — and creating a soup of decaying wood and vegetation. The result is an accumulation of potentially dangerous levels of methylmercury, a notorious poison that can cause serious harm to humans, in their fish and other marine foods.

Photo of man in boat leaving shore

Faced with a direct threat to their health and well-being, the Nunatsiavut Government representing the self-governing Inuit people of Labrador set out to build support throughout Newfoundland and Labrador for doing the project the right way. Their message: that Muskrat Falls should proceed only with mitigation measures to safeguard the area’s people and their food, water and land. Read the rest of this entry »

Not feeling the social media love? When to change course (or even abandon ship)

Unplugging an electrical cordRob was at the Inbound conference last week in Boston, joining thousands of communications professionals sharing experiences and ideas on using content to engage audiences.

When do you pull the plug on a social media channel?

That’s the question that faced Copyblogger, a service that’s all about communicating through social media. Yet they decided to leave Facebook — the single biggest gorilla in the social menagerie.

Graph in front of Facebook logoIt was actually a simple decision. Copyblogger was getting likes and shares, but very little engagement. Or, as their Chief Content Officer Sonia Simone told a packed room for her session The Intersection of Content and Social Media, “We didn’t love Facebook.” And great content, she added, is about love.

Copyblogger wanted a thriving community on Facebook, not just a presence. And if they were only participating reluctantly, that lack of enthusiasm would probably be picked up by their followers, and damage engagement.

They turned comments off on their blog for similar reasons.

English: Comment iconMany of the comments were low-value “Good post!”-style responses… along with a ton of the usual spam. And while they were also getting longer, more engaged comments, Copyblogger decided that — consistent with the company’s mission of promoting great written content — those conversations would be more powerful happening on the commenters’ own blogs.

Both decisions allowed them to focus their resources where they’d have the most impact, and engender the most productive engagement. Because the often-overlooked truth is that even “free” platforms like Facebook and Twitter have a cost to them: the time and attention they require you to spend to keep them fed with content, take part in conversations and uproot whatever weeds poke their heads out.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you should ditch Facebook; you almost certainly shouldn’t.

But it’s worthwhile to give every platform a hard look now and then, and ask yourself: What do we intend to accomplish here? How are we measuring it? And how are we doing? And based on the answers, lay in a few course adjustments.

Those probably won’t be as drastic as shutting off blog comments or bailing on Facebook. But they can help ensure you’re making progress instead of spinning your wheels.

Playing with the box it came in: design, all the way through

We get excited about great, powerful design here at NOW, and this is an example.

If you speak to groups, then you should probably know about Garr Reynolds, whose book Presentation Zen has saved countless audiences from terrible presentations. Focusing on both speeches and visuals, Reynolds advocates a design aesthetic rooted in principles that owe as much to Japanese culture as to Zen itself.

A few years ago, he brought out a DVD with an accompanying sketchbook, packaged as The Presentation Zen Way. And while the content is terrific, the package itself is arresting in its beauty.

This is the box it comes in:

The Presentation Zen Way: box

And this is what you see when you open it:

The Presentation Zen Way: interior

It’s a bento box! With pencils for chopsticks! And Post-Its that evoke pickled ginger!

The “wow” factor is immense (and the photos can’t do justice to the actual package). But the impact lies in the way the brand has carried all the way through from content to the little envelope the pencils come in. Every interaction with the packaging reinforces Reynolds’ message of simplicity and grace… and reminds the viewer of the principles behind it.

Kids are famous for tossing the expensive present aside and playing with the box it came in. That won’t happen with this; Reynolds’ presentation advice is too valuable to let it gather dust.

But for us, this is a reminder of why it’s worth going to such lengths to make thoughtful, effective design permeate every aspect of our communications. Whether we’re promoting principles for effective speaking or policies for social justice, every interaction with our audience is a chance to reinforce our message, and design — great design — helps make that happen.

Why communications-as-usual won’t reach Millennials… and three things that will

Photo of young people together; several are using mobile devices

Tamara has been working for the past 4 months as a summer student learning the ins-and-outs of strategic communications here at NOW. She takes her leave of us for the fall today… but first, here’s her insightful take on communicating with her generation.

“We do have a sense of entitlement, a sense of ownership, because, after all, this is the world we were born into, and we are responsible for it.”

Snapchat creator and CEO Evan Spiegel, 25, addressing labels often associated with Millennials

Evan Spiegel’s words ring true for many in my generation – we do feel a sense of ownership over this world.

For Millennial generation outsiders — and those trying to communicate with us — this mentality can be hard to understand, and reasonably so. But our sense of entitlement isn’t rooted in greed, but rather a sense of responsibility for our communities and our planet. This misinterpretation highlights the shift that has occurred in the communications landscape.

Growing up alongside the Internet revolution was surely going to influence how Millennials think, communicate and express themselves. And as more Millennials enter the workforce (and more baby boomers leave it), labour communicators need to be able to connect with them effectively.

Here are a three approaches for doing just that:

1. Speak their language, on their platforms

Don’t change what you’re saying – just how and where you’re saying it. Modernize the language in your messaging and strip it of confusing insider jargon or heavy rhetoric.

Often Millennials are saturated in news, images, and messages – meaning your content will be fighting for their attention. Keep it short and simple, and add a little light humour. Taking a powerful message or honest critique of your opponent, and adding a bit of humour, can go along way in making sure you stands out.

Make sure you’re reaching out on the right platform. Newsletters and email are great for getting information out there, but Millennials are a lot less likely to engage in those channels than via social media outlets like Instagram or Twitter.

While Millennials — like every other generation — still engage with traditional media like radio and TV, they’re turning increasingly to streaming services and online channels, which makes it increasingly vital to invest in communications on these platforms.

And know the conversational tools that connect. Craft witty hashtags and share your photos in places where young people will notice them. Using inclusive language that makes them feel like they’re part of the movement (don’t be that guy at the party talking incessantly about himself) on a platform they are familiar with will attract them to your organization.

That doesn’t mean becoming something you’re not. Avoid adopting an unconvincing, inauthentic voice. (Authenticity is one of the other words that come up a lot when people talk about Millennials.) Don’t try to sound like a craft-beer-brewing 22-year-old hipster if that isn’t who you are. Communicating honestly and directly will get you a lot further.

2. Show them your interests are in line

Don’t assume Millennials automatically see how the goals and work of your union are similar to their own workplace ideals.

There is a growing concern among Millennials about work safety, precarious employment, fear of under-pay and over-work, living costs, etc. And we are well aware that cuts have hurt every sector and that establishing ourselves will be difficult.

What not a lot of Millennials don’t see, however, is that unions can help us fight for better standards. Show them your drive and passion, and relate it to the same resolve they feel.

3. Collaborate and consult with existing young members

I’ve read countless articles detailing the ‘annoying’ habit Millennials have acquired of seeking almost constant collaboration and consultation in every aspect of their life.

But taking the time to listen to, and even test, some of their innovative ideas about procedure and organization can be profitable. If a Millennial feels heard by their union, they will feel like they are a part of it. And when they share their positive experience with their friends, that will lead to a greater appreciation and understanding of the work unions do among this generation.

Take the time to sit down with young members, go visit them in their workplace, talk to them and make them feel like they are a part of the movement. They’ll be your greatest ally in building support and cultivating your union’s future.

It’s pretty. But is it strategic?

The problem with pretty is it can mask a serious problem.

That brochure’s gorgeous. That video’s beautiful. That website is so tasty you want to gobble it up.

And every one of them could well be a waste of money.

We’ve seen a spate of videos like this over the past month or two: well-executed, beautifully shot or animated, meticulously edited… and strategically, not worth the three minutes we spent watching them.

We’d never knock good design; give us something eye-catching and compelling any day. But the problem with pretty is that it can mask a serious problem. If a piece isn’t strategic — if it doesn’t deliver its message in a convincing way — then pretty doesn’t matter, and neither does clever or funny (as painful as that is to admit).

Our first goal isn’t entertainment: it’s persuasion. It may sound harsh, but if a piece doesn’t move your audience toward supporting you, then it has failed.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use beauty or wit to earn your audience’s attention. But the way you do it can’t get in the way of your message.

Here are three questions to help you see past the dazzle and decide whether a piece really is strategic:

  • What’s the one thing you remember after seeing or hearing it? If that one thing reinforces your message, then great! If it doesn’t — if it’s a clever joke or glorious image that doesn’t deliver your message — then this piece hasn’t done its job.
  • Will someone who skims the piece get your message? A lot of people skim print ads and brochures. And most viewers won’t watch your video all the way through. If your message is one tiny little nugget at the bottom of a sea of off-message cruft, then this piece hasn’t done its job.
  • Does anything in this piece effectively contradict your message? I’m not talking about parody; if it’s clear that you’re making fun of your opponent’s point of view, that’s one thing. But if the piece appears to be dismissive of a serious issue, or makes jokes that undermine your point, this piece not only hasn’t done its job — it’s working against you.

Just because a piece is lovely, even moving, doesn’t mean it’s strategically effective. That’s where your strategic judgement has to come into play, setting aside aesthetics and asking the hard questions that can justify an effective use to time and money — or avoid a wasteful one.

Say it with pride: “This is a communications office.”

One of our greatest privileges over the years has been the people we get to work with — from talented volunteers to veteran staffers, from cramped campaign offices to national union headquarters to government departments and ministries—and of course our NOW colleagues.

All of us have one thing in common: a sense of higher purpose beyond just churning out product.

Among the people we work with, you won’t find the media stereotype of the mercenary who’s only in it to make a buck, or out of some win-at-all-costs, truth-be-damned neurosis. Instead, you’ll find committed people determined to make a difference. We’re in this to make the world a better place.

That deserves some respect. Maybe even some celebration. Read the rest of this entry »