Archive for the ‘Strategy’ Category

Unsolicited free advice for leadership hopefuls and New Democrats

Friday, July 8th, 2016

A photo of a big yellow arrow followed by a team of little white arrows.

For most Canadians, the season that just started is Summer. But for that band of hardy travellers on the parliamentary road to a better tomorrow — that is, us New Democrats — the season is Leadership.

Nationally and in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, our party is seeking new leadership. Choosing a new leader is a pretty big deal in politics. We’re trying to find an effective, inspiring champion for our values and policies… who has the wisdom and strategic smarts to guide a party in opposition and, hopefully, a province or a nation in government… and whose background and leadership style sends a powerful message to Canadians about who and what we stand for.

The NOW team has more than a little experience with this. At a quick rough count, we’ve collectively provided strategic guidance to 21 political party leaders including eight provincial premiers. And while we’ve lost count of the precise number, we’ve worked on more than 50 municipal, provincial and federal elections.

So here’s a little unsolicited, free advice (isn’t that the best kind?) from the NOW team to leadership hopefuls — and to the New Democrats who will choose one of them to lead us into the next election and beyond.

  1. We need a leader who talks more about others than her/himself. Telling voters what drives you to serve can be powerful. But a good leader also listens to others, reflects on what they say and weaves others’ stories into their own.
  2. Look for a leader who doesn’t talk about “rebuilding the party.” It isn’t about the party. It’s about the people who are counting on us to get elected so we can change their lives for the better. So let’s not navel-gaze too much in public.
  3. Let’s elect a leader who understands that the legislature isn’t the centre of the universe. The neighbourhood, my home and my family are the centre of my universe. Too often political types get tied up in knots about the process instead of the outcome. What we do in the legislatures of the nation matters only because of the impact on people’s lives. The best leaders are the ones who can make that connection without getting lost in the weeds of Parliamentary procedure and antics.
  4. Leadership is not only an intellectual exercise. Yes, our new leader should be smart and savvy. But it’s even more important to make an emotional connection – to speak from both the head and the heart about the real issues facing Canadians. Show voters that you care about me and my neighbours.
  5. Don’t tell people to vote for “change.” Instead, give voters a reason to want change, and show how that change will be better, not worse. A lot of Canadians (more than 80 per cent) think that no matter who is in government, our lives will continue just the same as they always were. Don’t just tell them they’re wrong; show them there is another way.

A lot of people say they want the party to be bold. They want to be inspired. I confess I don’t really know what that means. Frankly, it’s a lot easier to agree we want “bold” or “inspirational” than to agree on the ideas behind those words. A bold idea could still be a bad idea. And what inspires one, might not inspire another.

For the voters we need to reach, “inspiration” may well be a lot more about a leader who truly connects with them. Who understands that life for Canadians is getting harder and harder. With too few good jobs, too many burdens and not enough support for the average family.

Good leaders understand my story and thousands like it. They talk more about me than about themselves. They can talk to me about why some things are working and others aren’t, and they can offer clear, credible steps to make it better. They are human, emotional and smart, and they want to build a better world for all of us.

As you flip through the catalogue of potential leadership hopefuls, or if you’re preparing a campaign of your own, keep that emotional connection in mind.

And remember why we want to win. It’s not about victory itself, or grabbing the brass ring. It’s about winning so that we have the power to make life better for the people we want to represent. And the better a leader does at conveying that convincingly, the better our party’s chances for success where it really counts.

It’s about more than winning

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016

It's not enough to just say we want to win. We need to spell out why.

Words matter. So in our latest NOW Strategy post, I take a quick minute to examine one of the words we use a lot as campaigners, organizers and communicators: winning.

Do we all want to win? Of course! But the more we talk about “winning”, then the more the work we’re doing becomes a game: one political party or operative outsmarting the other, or about a union winning a tricky battle against an employer. What’s missing? People: the real-life humans we’re working to represent, and the things that concern and affect them every day.

Why we want to win matters. And it needs to be part of what we’re saying.

Read “Remember, it’s about more than winning” here

The right word matters more than ever.

Monday, February 1st, 2016

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. (more…)

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

Friday, August 28th, 2015

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?

Monday, August 24th, 2015

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.

Playing the “card” card: Hillary defangs a beloved Republican attack line

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

There’s always a risk in trying to turn an opponent’s words back on them. You may well end up reinforcing their message.

But when the opportunity is there, you can pull it off… especially when your opponent’s message resonates with their base but not with your persuadable audience.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign did just that yesterday after Sen. Mitch McConnell accused her of asking people to vote for her because she’s a woman—and said “the gender card alone is not enough.”

If reading that phrase made you grind a few chips of your molars, welcome to the club. For the past several years, the right wing has used “the race card” and “the gender card” as a way to silence discussion of inequality and injustice.

The phrase is a masterpiece of intellectual dishonesty, conveying an accusation of manipulation and duplicity without coming out and saying so. It’s rooted in the conservative narrative that claims that oppression is actually privilege, and that—… auuuugh, don’t get me started.

The point is, that narrative is near and dear to the Republican heart. But it’s a lot less convincing to persuadable voters… and gag-inducing to the Democrats that Clinton wants to mobilize as primary season looms.

So Clinton turned that phrase on its head, with a brief but powerful message in the form of a literal “gender card”:

She followed that up with a video that flipped the “card” idea back at the Republicans:

And that helped prompt a conversation under the hashtag #gendercard that can’t be what McConnell had in mind.

When you realize your opponent is relying on an attack line that has lost its bite, you have the chance to turn it back on them. You want to do it carefully, and you need to do your homework. But done carefully, it can be devastating.

How did Alberta happen? And what does it mean for better politics?

Monday, June 1st, 2015

#abdebrief: Learning from the historic Alberta election

When the votes were tallied on election night in Alberta last month, the shock waves reverberated well beyond the province’s borders. For anyone working for a fairer Canada, Rachel Notley’s astonishing victory has been galvanizing. (We posted Marie’s take a few weeks ago.)

Earlier today, four panelists – including two New Democrats who were close to the action – gathered at the invitation of the Broadbent Institute and Simon Fraser University to see what lessons they could draw from the NDP’s historic victory. (more…)

Get me rewrite! Study says many union print ads aren’t connecting with audiences

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

Photo of a stack of newspapers

Two University of Saskatchewan researchers are about to publish a must-read study about union communications—specifically, print advertising.

Professors Barb Phillips and Dionne Pohler studied 177 union ads spanning five years, and while “unions are doing a better job on advertising than the researchers thought,” they could be doing a lot better.

“[T]he ads were often far too text heavy, often did not have a call to action, and missed the mark on answering the ‘what-does-this-mean-for-me’ question, particularly when it came to providing an understanding of what unions do for the general public,” according to the university website. “They also found that many union ads too frequently focused on strikes.”

Of course when a strike is underway and your audience is being affected, it’s important to keep communicating, and avoid leaving the conversation exclusively to management. But an effective strategy involves communicating and building support, trust and relationships long before a strike is on the horizon.

And it requires communicating based on your audience’s values, needs and experiences. The study’s authors suggest unions “focus on what they do for society to build good will with the public.”

The study hasn’t been published yet, so we’re not sure exactly how the authors mean this, but we’d frame it more sharply. “Society” doesn’t vote, decide where to shop, or phone their elected representatives; individual people do. Building public support requires you to show your audience how unions benefit them personally.

And there’s another factor we hope the study addresses, one that comes up frequently for us in our work with public- and private-sector unions: the need to engage your members as well as your external audiences. Often labour communications are aimed as much at reinforcing internal solidarity in the face of management attacks, or at mobilizing members to take action, as they are at persuading members of the public. Reconciling messages crafted for those different audiences is one of the biggest challenges unions face.

But that aside, what we’ve seen so far suggests this study could open a lot of eyes. It reinforces much of what NOW’s Paul Degenstein said a few years ago in his manifesto Reviving Labour’s Image, when he urged unions to “Make friends – because when you need a friend, it’s too late to make one,” “Know your audience” and “Talk about them, not you.” It amplifies what Marie Della Mattia told the Canadian Labour Congress Political Action Conference two years ago, when she said “Our real power is when you talk about what’s in it for everyone,” and advised attendees to ask themselves, “Are my words and actions telling everyone, every day, that I care about them?” And it underscores Joanne Deer’s bargaining communications tips published just last month on the Canadian Association of Labour Media blog.

NOW was founded in 1992 to help bring a new communications discipline to the Canadian left, grounded in modern methods and strategies. Progressive communications have come a long way in Canada since then, but this study makes it clear there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

Bargaining communications: Eight tips for an effective message

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

CALM logoThe Canadian Association of Labour Media recently invited me to contribute a post about bargaining communications to their blog. As a long-standing fan of CALM’s work supporting labour communicators, I jumped at the chance—and wrote a post detailing eight ways to ensure your bargaining communications connect with your audience:

One of the keys to successful bargaining is building solidarity—with your members and with the public.

A clear, consistent message is critical to persuading people to be on your side. And the best way to get people to be on your side is to let them know you’re on their side.

Whether your audience is your members, the public or your employer, you’ll be more successful if you talk about your bargaining objectives in terms of solving real problems. Don’t focus on clause x or protocol y. Instead, talk about concrete results that make a difference for people.

Here are eight tips to help you get there:

1. Start now.

As the saying goes, “When you need a friend, it’s too late to make one.” Every communication should be working toward your objectives far in advance. If your audience only hears from you when the going gets tough, they’ll be less inclined to hop on board.

Your members and the public will be more inclined to support you if you have invested in your relationship over time. Show them now how the work you do makes a positive difference in their lives.

Read the full post on the CALM blog. And let me know what you think!

The seven deadly diversions pulling you off your message

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

Photo of a small compassMaybe calling it “message discipline” was a mistake.

“Discipline” makes staying on-message sound like a chore, and going off-message sound like a deliberate choice, an act of rebellion. I’ve had it with your message-box rules, daddy-o. I’m sticking it to The Man.

But often when I talk to a leader or spokesperson who has gone off-message, they aren’t feeling like defiant mavericks.

Either a) they don’t realize it’s happened, or b) they felt helpless in the moment to keep it from happening: “I know the message is about pensions — but before I knew it, there I was talking about giraffe mucus.”

True, we’ve seen a few deliberate acts of rebellion — some relatively harmless, some profoundly self-sabotaging. But far more often, here’s what really throws people off-message: (more…)