How Great Leaders Inspire Action: Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle”

Simon Sinek, author of the 2009 book “Start With Why”, describes the essential element of inspiring leadership in this meaty little TED Talk. He encapsulates beautifully the approach that Rockwood Leadership Institute and master leadership trainer Robert Gass have used for years in their approach to “inside-out” leadership, using the metaphor of what he calls the “Golden Circle”.

Simon Sinek, author of the 2009 book “Start With Why”, describes the essential element of inspiring leadership in this meaty little TED Talk.  He encapsulates beautifully the approach that Rockwood Leadership Institute and master leadership trainer Robert Gass have used for years in their approach to “inside-out” leadership, using the metaphor of what he calls the “Golden Circle”.

Imagine a dart board with three rings.  The outer ring represents the “what” of leadership and action. This is comfortable terrain for the vast majority of leaders, who are readily able to articulate what they do.  The middle rings speaks to “how”  – and indeed, a smaller subset of people are able to articulate how they accomplish what they do. But the key to transformative, powerful leadership, Sinek argues, lies in the smallest, center circle – which is all about “why” a leader does what s/he does – their deepest purpose. From Martin Luther King to Apple computers, Sinek asserts that great leaders are driven from this core place of purpose-driven leadership.

And these three rings, he says, correspond to the layers of the human brain. The outer layer of the brain, the neocortex or “homo sapiens brain”, is the latest development in our species’ evolution – it’s the fancy neurological wrapping that is responsible for language, the processing of facts and data, and rational thought.  The middle two sections of the brain are the limbic brain – the far more ancient components of our neurobiology. The limbic brain is responsible for feelings such as trust and loyalty, fear and desire. It is also  limbic brain is also responsible for all decision-making. It has no capacity for language. As Sinek (as well as Drew Weston and a host of others) articulates so well, when we communicate from the outside in – that is, starting from facts and analysis – we are not communicating to the place where people actually make decisions. But when we communicate – and lead – from the inside out, we are speaking directly to the parts of the human brain that control decision-making. The neo-cortex will then follow, rationalizing that behaviour.

Sinek also talks about the Theory of Social Innovation, including the elusive “tipping point”, beyond which a new idea or innovation attains enough momentum to continue moving through a community. (For a brief overview of this concept, see my 2007 post, “the trajectory of social change”).  Whether describing King as the leader of the Civil Rights movement or the Wright Brothers as leaders and creators of modern aviation, Sinek briefly maps out the kind of purpose-driven leadership that was essential to the eventual success of these great leaders.

The Power of the “Message Box”

The classic “message box” is both dead simple and incredibly powerful – which is why it’s been used in virtually every political campaign for years. The concept is also invaluable for developing messages in not-for-profit advocacy campaigns. This short article describes how to create your own message box.

I’m on my way to Halifax getting ready to give a communications workshop at the ALLIES conference on supporting skilled immigrants. There, my colleague Marco Campana and I are focusing on message development and social media. One tool I’ll offer is the classic “message box”. It’s a simple tool to help map out the messaging landscape on an issue, including the clear contrasts between your own core messages, plan and positioning, and that of your opponents.

The concept is both powerful and dead simple – that’s why it’s been used in virtually every political campaign for years. In fact, I was first exposed to it in more detail at the 1999 Campaigns and Elections conference in Washington, D.C. But the message box is also invaluable for not-for-profit advocacy campaigns. Even where there do not appear to be clear “opponents” to a policy solution, there are often unspoken positions that stand in the way of success. Crafting a smart, thoughtful message box will help bring those barriers to the surface, while clarifying the core messages your team seeks to drive home.

Creating your message box
Here’s how to create your message box: draw a square, and divide it into quadrants. Label the upper-left quadrant “Us on Us”; the upper right, “Them on Them”; lower-left “Us on Them”, and lower-right “Them on Us”. That’s the basic framework. It will look like the image on the left. The next step is to then fill it in. To do so, an effective communications campaign will draw on a combination of your campaign team’s values and vision, combined with its deep understanding of the target audiences’ values, beliefs and attitudes (based on thorough research), and a thorough scan of the opposing arguments, plans or positions that may stand in the way. The end result: a message box filled with just a few very short, clear phrases or ideas – usually in the form of 1-5 bullet points for each quadrant.

Us on Us
Let’s start with the first quadrant. What are we saying about ourselves, our issue, or our plan? This is where we distill the core theme and positioning of the campaign –where we describe what we’re for, rather than what we’re against. Sounds simple, right? The irony is that many social change advocates, as well as political folks with a strong history of serving as Official Opposition, are so steeped in what I call a “culture of opposition” that they can find this step surprisingly challenging! But this is the place where we paint a brief but compelling picture about the vision we stand for – a picture our audiences can vividly imagine being part of.

Them on Them
Now turn to the upper right quadrant. What is the “other side” saying about themselves and their position and plan? What is their call to action or solution? Complete the upper right quadrant with 1-5 bullet points, again using the best research available (e.g., based on mainstream and social media scans, or interviews with key opinion leaders). This is another place where I’ve seen some advocacy groups get tripped up: sometimes, because they don’t feel the opponents’ arguments are legitimate, they don’t take the time to deeply understand them. Their counter-arguments then ring hollow, and fail to reach or convince those all-important ‘persuadable’ target audiences.

Them on Us
The next two quadrants are relatively easy. What are our opponents saying about us and our arguments? How will they seek to frame our issues and position us overall? They will almost certainly be seeking to highlight our weaknesses, and to then contrast those with their own strengths and the merits of their positions. In a political or highly contentious advocacy campaign, they will seek to dominate the debate here – to put our team on the defensive. Anticipating those aspects of the message box will help your campaign team prepare to inoculate or mitigate against those message elements.

Us on Them
The final quadrant is where your team prepares to pre-empt the messages of your opponents. What are we saying about the other side and their plan or position? What are their weakest positions and arguments – and how do they contrast with our strengths most starkly? It is from this quadrant, along with “Us on Us”, that a campaign team will seek to dominate the debate through strong, effective messages.

Overall, a campaign will always seek to control the message; in other words, to dominate the debate from the left-hand column. And while you may craft a message box at the beginning of a campaign, it is unlikely to remain static. The communications landscape is dynamic; peoples’ views change, the tenor and intensity of media stories shift, and new players enter the debate. This means that messaging needs to change over time. In a political campaign, while the core messaging themes may remain consistent, some elements of a message box may change from week to week.

Case study: Obama versus McCain, 2008
For a case study of a powerful (and obviously highly successful) message box that changes over time, see this article by communications consultant Kathy McShea. McShea does a fantastic job of laying out the basic message box used by the Obama campaign in the 2008 US election race. And it changed at key points along the way; scroll down to the message box and click on the large arrow on the right to see how.

Briefing notes: Making Face-to-face meetings count with solid preparation

I just got off the phone with one of my coalition clients, as we committed to planning our next meeting together well in advance. There is nothing like well-organized face-to-face meetings for collaborating, bonding and pooling a group’s collective brain-trust and creativity. But as we all know, meetings can have a Dark Side. If done poorly, meetings can suck a group’s life force; I swear they can! And they can squander money. Consider a two-day meeting of 15 non-profit members, each receiving a salary equivalent of about  $25/hour. It costs a whopping $6,000 for their time, and that’s before even considering food, travel costs, facilitation fees and venue rental.

Solid preparation is one of the keys to ensuring that that $6,000 of face-time is invested well. That means doing as much pre-thinking about the meeting overall, and specific topics within it, as possible. Anything that could just as easily be addressed via email, should be.

Obviously a well-designed agenda is the first step to making the most of valuable face-time.  For larger group meetings, when there isn’t time or budget to contact each participant individually, I often use an on-line survey, like SurveyMonkey, to get a sense of agenda priorities across the whole group.

And I always have the client group do a quick P.O.P., clarifying the Purpose, desired Outcome and best Process, both for the overall meeting, and for each agenda topic.

Another key tool I’ve been working with for several coalition clients is the classic Briefing Note. If you do government relations, the concept will be familiar: it’s a tightly-written 1-2 page document aimed at bringing extremely busy decision-makers up to speed on an issue quickly. A briefing note typically includes key background facts, analysis, options – with well-considered risks and benefits for each – and recommendations. A decent template for writing government-focus briefing notes – for example, the format a Ministerial Assistant might use when informing a Cabinet Minister about essential elements and possible responses to an issue – can be found here; just check one of the “background” buttons to download a sample.

Briefing notes are also useful for extremely busy non-profit or coalition members. When well-crafted briefing notes are circulated (and of course, read) in advance, they allow groups to skip past the preliminaries or simple updates – which can easily be done via email – so they can dive right to the heart of a meaty agenda topic fairly quickly.

The concept is pretty straightforward, but here are a couple of structures that I’ve seen work well for teams and coalitions:


1. Briefing notes for decision

Topic: include the topic, date, authors’ name

Purpose:  “For Decision” (ie the group will need to consider the issues raised in the note, in addition to others that may arise, then make a decision about how to proceed)

Background: (include a summary of key facts, including main actors, major events/activities to date, analysis, public opinion data, highlights of media coverage and framing to date, etc)

Options: 2-5 possible courses of action, including a brief assessment of the pros and cons for each.

Recommendation: proposed course of action, and the rationale

2. Briefing notes for information/updates

Topic: include the topic, date, authors’ name

Purpose:  “For Information”

Background: include a summary of key facts, new/emerging trends, new analysis, etc

Activities: clarify key activities to date as they relate to the overall strategy

Results: clarify the outcomes and results to date based on the activities

Outstanding questions: here’s where the group can get important ‘heads-up’ about unclear issues

Next steps: note upcoming decision points, key actions/events others may need to be aware of

Briefing notes can be used for other purposes as well. I’ve worked with groups that use them to prepare their colleagues for a brainstorm or idea-generating session: sometimes a smaller team just really needs a larger pool of creative thinkers to ensure they have a robust pool of ideas and strategies.  Then those ideas can later be explored and tested outside of the meeting. These kinds of creative sessions can be really invigorating for a team, too – a stimulating shift from more business-like or process-focused topics.

I’ve also seen briefing notes used to shape the way a group provides face-to-face feedback on a key strategy or funding proposal. This can be helpful when real dialogue is needed, so that trade-offs can be explored in more depth. Circulating a proposal to a series of individuals via email or googledocs just won’t allow for that kind of synergistic, collective reflection and discussion.

Well-crafted briefing notes require a fair bit of work and discipline on the part of the presenter. They also require discipline on the part of participants – who need to commit to reading them in advance. But over and over I’ve seen individual and collective thinking sharpened considerably with this kind of pre-work, allowing groups to do what they do best – think creatively, dig deep, explore trade-offs and shared values, and find collective solutions to complex problems.

Flying up a storm: Offsetting GHG emissions for traveling change-makers

The good news: I’m lucky enough to work with amazing clients all over the continent who change the world on a daily basis. And I’m one of those freaky people that actually love travel, airports and all – which is good, since most training and facilitation requires face-time. The bad news: While I’m off helping others ‘save the world’, I’m also helping pump tonnes of nasty fossil fuel emissions into our beleaguered atmosphere.

Oh, the irony. Especially on Earth Day!

Nowadays, many airlines offer ‘offsetting’ options for a small donation when you purchase your ticket. But I admit, I’m skeptical. Are they investing in companies that plant trees for biofuel – but only after clear-cutting entire stands of 300-year old cedars? In other words, are the projects actually not resulting in “additional” CO2 reductions? Or are they contributing to other negative non-carbon impacts, like investing in run-of-river hydro-electric projects that produce ‘green energy’ by trashing salmon spawning streams, or that undercut the conservation-economy efforts of First Nations in their territories?

It all comes down to trusting the offsetting supplier or broker. So, I asked another frequent-flyer, longtime business leader and environmental activist Joel Solomon, of Renewal Partners what he does.  He suggested “Offsetters”, a Canadian organization with 25 staff based out of Vancouver. According to their site, they have one of the lowest overhead rates in the industry. As well, they say they’re “verified by third parties as generating additional, permanent reductions in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.”

So I checked out their handy calculator, and learned that, on a recent trip from Vancouver to Philadelphia and back, I alone was responsible for spewing another 1.8917 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. Tonnes, people!  Blerg!  But wait – for $47.29 I can invest in permanent, additional CO2 reductions that will counter most of that, and alleviate at least some of my chronic guilt.

Now, not for one minute do I believe that we can, or should, buy our way out of our collective planet-trashing lifestyles. But, until we can all sit together as faux-embodied beings, reading one another’s body language and doing our small-group breakouts in Star Trek’s much-awaited Holadeck, supporting Offsetters, or something like it (BTW, recommendations welcome!) looks like the best interim solution for frequent travelers like me. It’s certainly better than doing nothing at all.

News Conferences: Tips for Success, Part 3 of 3

This is the final installment of my three-part series on news conferences. If a story is really ‘hot’, the pressure to pre-release it to select outlets in whole or in part, can be intense. Here are a few strategic issues to consider in terms which reporters do, or don’t, get special advance access to the story, including embargoes, advances, and exclusives.

This is the final installment of my three-part series on news conferences. If a story is really ‘hot’, the pressure to pre-release it to select outlets in whole or in part, can be intense.  Here are a few strategic issues to consider in terms which reporters do, or don’t, get special advance access to the story:

An embargo simply means that you are asking reporters and editors to hold off airing the story until the time you specify – usually it’s the time your news conference begins.  If you write  “embargoed until 10:00 AM, April 30, 2010″ at the very top of your news release in big bold letters, for example, then you are asking reporters to honour the embargo, and not air or print the story before that time.   If your news release is distributed on the newswires or through your email broadcast system at exactly the time of the news conference, you don’t really need to embargo the story. But if you’re sending out the release a few hours beforehand, then it is important that you embargo the story for the time of the news conference – otherwise, the story might be broadcast or printed in advance, and there will be less incentive for other outlets to attend; the story will be that much less “new”.

Embargoed Advances
Many groups consider offering a strategic leak or “advance” to one reporter (usually a newspaper reporter) the day before.  The key consideration here is whether you are asking the reporter to honour the embargo. This is what we are calling an “embargoed advance”.  There are pros and cons to this approach.

  • Benefits: allowing a trusted reporter to have earlier access to the story allows them to build a richer piece, including more elements, and to develop a deeper understanding of the issue. The story may be larger or longer, and it may have more images. A second advantage is that you can potentially develop a better relationship with that reporter, becoming an even more valuable “source” for future stories.
  • Risks:  The more time a reporter has with your perspective, the more time they may have with the perspectives of opponents, if any. It is the reporter’s job to seek other perspectives on an issue.  By giving them more time to do this, your reporter may then contact the “other side” for comment. Not only does this mean that the very first story on the issue is more likely to portray different arguments (rather than just yours), but your opponents (if you have any) may be “tipped off” about the story.   A second risk is that the reporter, or even their editor, may not honour the embargo.  This is discussed more below.

Leaks or Advances
If you are “leaking” or “advancing” the story, but not requesting that the reporter honour the embargo, the story may appear on the morning of (or even day before) your news conference.  Often radio stations or TV outlets will ask to release the story that morning, before the news conference.  And if your story is newsworthy, there is almost always pressure from news outlets to allow them to cover and release the story before the news conference.

This is what it means: If your story is “embargoed”, but you then allow a reporter to release the story before the news conference, you yourself are breaking the embargo. There are potential benefits and significant risks to this approach. The advantage: your early-release story may whip up even more excitement among the media and generate more news coverage than it otherwise would. Or, if the news conference itself doesn’t draw that much attention, you may be lucky, and end up with at least a single (hopefully large and favourable) story in the outlet to which you advanced the story.

But reporters don’t always deliver.  Sometimes their editors kill the story before it is printed or aired. Other times they themselves determined that it just isn’t that newsworthy, compared to other news priorities that day or week.   Still other times, the story may appear – but it might be small, buried in the back pages, or unfavourable, in terms of how the issue is framed or your group is portrayed.

Deciding on what to do can be nerve-wracking.  It’s rather like a game of “chicken”.  Usually, groups doing news conferences are nervous – if a reporter seems genuinely interested in a “scoop”, it is extremely tempting to consider offering them one, in hopes that they will indeed be able to deliver a major story.

But there is a tremendous risk to both you and your organization.  In breaking your own embargo, you may well damage your credibility of both as a communicator and source.  You may anger reporters who did not have the benefit of the leak or advance. If they are sufficiently disgruntled, they may choose to not honour your embargos in the future, or they may ignore your story leads altogether.  I remember being yelled at for 5 minutes by a CBC reporter when one of my clients – against my advice – decided to release their story to a friendly reporter at another outlet before the news conference. It was not pleasant – and the relationship was damaged. Social justice groups are sometimes accused by reporters of being unprofessional and unreliable – often because they tend to break embargoes — so your organization may already be behind in terms of credibility at the outset.

If you do decide to take the risk and offer an advance to a trusted reporter or editor, then don’t give away every element of the story (unlike an exclusive – see below). Decide exactly how much information you are willing to part with in advance, and stick to that.  Keep the interview very short.  Make it clear to the reporter that you are withholding some information.  What you are really doing is trying to get the reporter to raise interest in your story, not lower it by making subsequent stories by other reporters  “old news.”  For example, if you’re releasing a report, don’t give them the full report, but just key findings — just enough for them to write a 300-word story or do a 30-second news item and make sure there’s something left for them to report the next day.  Also, make sure the reporter knows that you are giving them an advance.

And next time, if you again decide to offer an advance, consider offering it to a different news outlet. Spread the goodwill around if you can – keep building those relationships!

Finally, a word on “exclusives”.  Giving a reporter an exclusive means you are giving her the whole story, including all the elements you have at your disposal.  Generally, if you are offering a key reporter an exclusive, it does not make sense to then hold a press conference.  It will almost always guarantee that other outlets will be reluctant to show up at a news conference to hear the same story –and who can blame them?  An exclusive should be regarded as a stand-alone media tactic, separate from a news conference.  As such, it can be very effective.  For example, if your target audience is federal policy makers, an exclusive in a national daily can be an invaluable way of delivering your message.

News Conferences: Tips for Success, Part 2 of 3

This is part 2 of a 3-part series on holding successful news conferences. Covered here: timing your news conference; gate-keeping at the event; press kits; the speakers’ panel; scrums and interviews; equipment; room set-up; and evaluating success.

Today’s post continues my three-part series on smart, high-impact news conferences.

Embargoing your news release
On the morning of the news conference, send out the news release – a one-page, pithy, well-crafted version of the story.  In most cases, you will want to ensure the release is ’embargoed’ until the time of the news conference. That means you’re asking reporters and editors to NOT publish or broadcast the actual story until the news conference itself (for more on the risks and benefits, see Part 3). Otherwise, if the story is already out there on the airwaves, it might not be worth a reporter’s time to cover it; unless the story is huge or the speakers wildly compelling, it may already be considered ‘old news’. To ‘embargo’ a news release, simply write “Embargoed until” with the time and date (e.g., April 3, 2010, 10:00 PST).  In brief, the release should detail highlights of the news you will release, one or more strong quotes from your spokespeople with their titles, and clear contact information.

Gatekeeping at the event
At the news conference itself, be sure to assign a ‘greeter’ at the door, and keep a sign-in sheet for reporters to record their names, titles and outlets. Ask for their cards if you can. This tracking of who attends is so important – it allows you to identify faces to names (again, the relationship-building), track who may be covering the story, and identify reporters who may have a particular interest in similar stories in future. It allows you to screen out uninvited non-journalists – if you have well-organized opponents, they may send people to plant hostile questions or disrupt the event (regrettably, this does happen). Tracking also allows you to identify which outlets did NOT attend. Be sure to follow up those outlets afterward; you may even have another staff member or volunteer doing this during the news conference. And be prepared to re-send the news release to them—many still will not have seen it.

Press kits or backgrounders
For those attending the conference, ensure you have copies of the release and additional background information (speakers bios, maps, graphs, fact sheets, possibly an FAQ, images in digital format etc.) available for them on site. Ideally, provide a CD with high quality, high contrast head shots for each of your speakers.  If you have B-roll or background footage available for them, provide clearly-labelled DVDs; they may be able to use it. A few years ago I worked with the Raincoast Conservation Society on a new study about threatened, unique coastal wolves. They provided high-quality, hard-to-get footage of these rare wolves in action, footage no outlet would have been able to obtain on their own. The story ran on every major TV outlet throughout the day. Pharmaceuticals regularly provide background or “B-Roll” footage of scientists and doctors in white lab coats measuring tests tube and monitoring patients, or gel capsules being filled with medicines in factory conveyer belts. It all looks very impressive and once again, add colour, life and ‘stickiness’ to a story, making it that much more likely to both run, and have an impact on your audiences.

There are a number of issues to consider with your spokespeople:

  • It’s a good idea to have two to three speakers, each one fulfilling a different role (eg. main spokesperson; technical or policy expert; person suffering effects of story, etc). More than three is generally overkill – it will take too long, people will get bored, and your message could get lost or confusing – it can be very challenging to keep more than one or two speakers ‘on-message’. Make sure that each one is a genuine expert on the subject being addressed; don’t put people up there just because they have status in your organization.
  • Ensure your speakers avoid reading notes. Speakers reading from their notes are almost always monotone, stilted and less engaging (and therefore less quotable) than those who speak directly to their audiences.
  • Keep each individual presentation short (1-2 minutes per person).  Practice these in advance.
  • Ideally, keep the overall presentation portion of the news conference to a maximum of 15 minutes, allowing plenty of time for questions.
  • Keep the entire conference to 45 minutes or less, including reporters’ questions.
  • If possible, and depending on your region and your target audiences, it can be extremely useful to have a spokesperson on hand who knows the issue well AND can speak to media outlets in other languages, such as French (in Canada), Spanish (in the US) or Mandarin.

Scrums and one-on-one interviews
If your story is highly newsworthy, be prepared for a news scrum right after the conference, where reporters may throng around your most engaging speakers to seek direct comments and quotes. This can be frenetic if you have also arranged individual interviews; make sure your speakers have rehearsed answering anticipated questions thoroughly. Also be prepared to arrange individual interviews following the conference. Make sure you have at least one staff or volunteer member to handle this; it can get frenetic for a high-profile conference. If your speakers are bilingual, this is where you should line them up with your priority non-English speaking reporters.

Provide a decent sound system or at least a clearing and/or table on which reporters can set microphones and mic stands. You may want to have all speakers trade places to be in front of the microphones, or have one mic for each speaker; if the sound quality if poor, the story may not  run.  If you have the budget for it, equipment you may want to consider renting  includes:

  • Media consol
  • Mixing feed
  • Mics and mic stands for one or more speakers
  • Lights are optional; most camera operators and photographers will bring their own
  • You’ll also want to ensure that there are tables for holding these items.
  • Display table (if you don’t have one already) for posting mounted images or banners.
  • VCR and TV monitor (if you are showing 5 minutes of B-roll footage, for example, and are offering copies of it to the TV outlets that attend)

Room set-up
Make sure there is a sufficiently large clearing in front of the speakers – reporters and camera operators need space to set up their equipment. You might also want to set up 10-20 chairs theatre-style behind and slightly around that cleared area.  It’s a great idea to have a side table or two for:

  • The media sign-in sheet (unless that’s right at the entrance
  • Copies of  backgrounders or press kits (see above)
  • Coffee, tea and water (optional, but always appreciated)

Avoid placing your presentation area against a window (for photo and video). You may want to invest in branded materials, such as a large banner for the backdrop, a sign with your organization’s name and logo for the podium, and/or clear high-quality maps or images off to the side.

Two to three days after the event, review your media sign-in sheet, monitor the coverage you received from attendees and non-attendees alike, and evaluate success of the press conference in relation to the time, energy and money it took to hold. Ask your team, “what did we learn here? How can we do it even better, with less energy and more powerful results, next time?” And please, do the work around documentation. Be sure to go through and update your media list here; don’t rely on peoples’ memories to track who showed up, how they covered it and who might be worth following up with next time for similar stories. This is a vital part of the learning and relationship-building process for any media practitioner.

Upcoming workshop: How to tell more compelling stories using photos

Nothing launches stories into the heats and minds of our audiences like a powerful image. So don’t miss “Behind the Lens of a Veteran Photojournalist: How to Tell More Compelling Stories Using Photos” on Wednesday, April 21st at 10 AM PDT. It’s the latest webinar from the brilliant media and messaging team at Resource Media in Seattle. It’s one hour, it’s free, and offers concrete tips and tools for social change  & environmental organizations. Presenters are Matt Brashears (12 year photojournalist) and Sian Wu (communications guru); click here for details and to register.

News Conferences: Tips for Success, Part 1 of 3

Today’s post is the first of a three-part series on smart, well-organized news conferences that can generate high-impact media stories and build relationships with key reporters. It covers why your organization might want to invest in a news conference, and when not to; timing; the media advisory; and pitching or ‘selling’ the event to key reporters and assignment editors.

Last week, when I was facilitating a media training session for the Center for Progressive Leadership, a couple of the participants wanted more information on news conferences. Now’s as good a time as any! Today’s post is the first of a three-part series on smart, well-organized news conferences that can generate high-impact media stories and build relationships with key reporters.

Why invest in a news conference?
Let me count the ways….. A successful news conference can launch your story into dozens of media outlets – and into the hearts and minds of thousands of potential supporters – in one fell swoop. A news conference driven by a solidly newsworthy story is an event; it can help create the news. Once the ball starts rolling and enough key media are convinced they need to attend, then you have a golden opportunity to shape the message by choosing the right location, backdrops, and spokespeople, as well as preparing solid background materials anticipating tough questions afterward.  As well, by bringing reporters and your people together face to face, a live news conference can take you and your spokespeople one step closer in the ongoing quest of any smart communicator to build relationships with key reporters.

There are a host of considerations and several steps to planning and carrying out a successful news conference.

Risky business
A news conference is the way to go when you have a really, really newsworthy story with clear hard news value.  But be warned: They are risky.  I have always been very conservative about choosing news conferences. Here’s why: First, news conferences are time and energy-intensive to do well. In some cases, they are also very expensive.  And they are a gamble; even if you think your story constitutes “hard news”, you can’t ensure the press will attend.  An unattended press conference is not only demoralizing – it may also send the message that your issue is not worth covering. It can make you, your organization and your cause look weak. And of course, it can end up feeling like a waste of time and money.

Timing is everything
If you can, first try to find out whether any other major stories are taking place on the date on which you plan to hold your news conference.  If you have a relationship with local reporters, one or more may be able to tell you if another event is already scheduled for that day. Of course, there’s no guarantee some more dramatic unexpected story will supercede yours (war breaking out, planes full of world leaders crashing etc), but best to plan where you can.  Generally, it’s best to hold the event at 10:00 am on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday for daily print media,, whose daily story meetings are typically around 9:00 am each morning.  TV and radio outlets will have several news segments throughout the day, but the 6:00 evening news typically reaches the widest audience. If you hope your news conference will create follow-up stories, never hold it late in the day or late in the week.  Sometimes weekend press conferences can generate stories in the thin news of Sundays or Mondays – but it is a gamble.

Setting the bait: the media advisory
People (even a few journalists I’ve met) are often confused about the distinction between a media advisory and news release.  So here’s the deal: the media advisory is a short “ teaser”, sent usually 2-3 business days in advance of the actual news conference.  It’s aimed at convincing editors and reporters that there IS a story and they need to be there to cover it – without giving too much away. If they knew the whole story beforehand, why would they come?

Some more notes on the media advisory:

  • Timing: Send the media a media advisory 2-3 business days before the event.
  • Content: Keep it short – one page or less. Include the 5 Ws (who will be there, when and where, what the topic is, why it matters). Include the name, titles and credentials of the speakers.
  • Images: Highlight any photo or image opportunities; this can make the difference between an outlet sending a camera or photographer or not. And you definitely want the cameras. Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words – the more images that accompany the story, the more likely it is to both run, and be remembered by your target audiences.

Distributing the advisory
For stories aimed at a large number of media outlets, it may make sense to invest in a newswire service, like Canadian Newswire or PR Newswire in the U.S.  But even if you do, it is essential that you maintain your own media list with phone numbers and email addresses. That’s because “pitching” the advisory afterward – that is, calling and/or emailing your target reporters and assignment editors to sell the story to them – is an essential part of the process. Ensure that your media list includes key non-English media as well, such as French, Mandarin, Tagalog or Spanish, depending on your key audiences. If you’ve got speakers who are bilingual, note this in your advisory and/or follow-up calls.

Pitching the media advisory
I’ve found that typically one-third of the editors and reporters I’ve contacted afterward say they haven’t seen the media advisory, especially if I didn’t send it directly to their personal email boxes. Following up directly ensures they receive it if they are interested. It also helps gauge the level of media interest in your story; and of course, may help build a relationship with that reporter just a little bit more. If they aren’t interested, you can always ask – politely – why (versus challenging them or getting offended) and use the opportunity to learn.

Facilitation, tricky language and racial justice

What does it mean to be a white facilitator wanting to actively support racial justice, and what Martin Luther King described as “Beloved Community”?  And specifically, how might that intention be reflected in the subtle use of language when facilitating or training? Looking back on two recent experiences as a facilitator working with diverse social justice participants in the U.S., this question has me flummoxed. Let me share two stories (actually, two stories-within-stories).

Tale of the Bus-Stop Crack Addict
Last February I was in the hills of California co-facilitating a leadership training with an incredibly inspiring multi-racial group of participants. We were teaching a skill called ‘meshing’ to help leaders stay centered and resourceful in the face of aggression or hostility from others.  To illustrate, I described an early evening last summer in Vancouver, when my two boys and I were waiting at a bus stop in the downtown east side – one of the lowest-income neighbourhoods in Canada.  A young, powerfully-built man walked up and started hassling my teenaged step-son. The man was high, red-eyed, agitated and extremely aggressive, jerkily swinging his fists as though he were about to strike. Like many of our street homeless, he was probably mentally ill. I stepped up between them, actively ‘meshing’, grounding my energy and  started calmly talking with him while the boys watched nervously. By the time our bus arrived, he’d calmed right down. As we stepped aboard, he clutched my shoulder and said in an almost pleading voice, “I’m not such a bad guy you know.”

Later on, a Vanessa*, a brilliant young African-American participant, shared that while the story was a good illustration of meshing, it also reinforced the stereotype of black men as violent and drug-addicted.

I was startled. Not for one second did it occur to me to mention his race. And, as I’d recounted the tale, I saw the man’s white face, curly reddish hair and blue eyes ringed with red as vividly in my mind’s eye as if he’d been standing right in front of me. To the extent I thought of it at all, I implicitly assumed that everyone saw the same thing.

Was I being naïve? Obtuse? ‘Colour-blind’?  Well, in a way, yes.  I was unaware of what author Drew Weston describes as the unconscious ‘networks of associations’ the story may have triggered for the participants. In Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, a neighbourhood I’d worked on the edge of for 12 years, the vast majority of street homeless and drug-addicted people are white or aboriginal. As a Western Canadian, I simply have not been inundated with the kind of relentless media portrayal of black men as violent criminals that Americans are subjected to every day. As a result, I don’t automatically picture black men when I hear stories about street crime. I picture white men.

My take-away from Vanessa’s feedback? Don’t risk leaving my participants to ‘fill in the blanks’ with their own racial stereotypes or unconscious networks of associations. Recognize that, as another African-American woman  noted in a training this past weekend, “it’s always in the room. Race is always the first thing people notice.”  So name it – use a quick adverb: “white”, “black” (especially in Canada), “African-American”, “woman of colour”,  and so on. In the last few months, mindful of this lesson, I’ve started doing exactly this, usually as a quick aside in the process of sharing longer stories. As part of this effort, I try to interrupt the often unconscious assumption that ‘whiteness’ is normal (and everything else is exotic).

Tale of Two Hunky Candidates
But wait – is this always the way to go? Consider Story Number Two. This past weekend I was facilitating a fantastic group of multi-racial, progressive political and policy leaders in Philadelphia. At one point we were talking about the classic “message box” used in most political campaigns to clarify the central message and differentiate between two candidates. I was recounting an electoral race I’d been involved in where the two candidates were seen by the media as being virtually identical in several ways. “They both rode their bikes everywhere and advocated for sustainable transportation,” I explained. “They were both successful business leaders, middle-upper class, and both were athletic, environmentally progressive, white and good-looking.”

Afterward, Joan*, one of the participants asked if we could speak privately in a break. “Suzanne,” she said, “I’m curious. Why did you mention their race at all? And why did you describe them as ‘good-looking whites’?” There was a lot to unpack in those two simple questions, as we discovered.  First, from her perspective – and she was a white woman married to an African-American – it was klunky and unnecessary of me to mention that they were white at all. Secondly, she felt I was playing into racial bias by implying that white men were generally better-looking. Whoah! How did I imply that?  Who even thinks that? Again, I found myself blind to the automatic assumptions or networks of associations of at least some of my participants might have.

Once gain, I found myself back squarely in the “flummoxed” box.

After I’d explained the crack-addict story that had led me to start noting race, Joan suggested that next time I might consider separating adjectives like “white” and “good-looking” in time and space – maybe slip another adjective in between them – to ensure the people don’t fill-in-the-associations. It’s another idea I’ll add to my growing ‘language toolbox’ when it feels appropriate.

But is the ‘answer’ clear to me? Not at all. It’s an ongoing dance between being skillful on all the levels any facilitator has to track (agenda, timing, participation, group energy levels) while also being mindful of the subtleties of language and other dynamics connected to racism and privilege. There is often no “right” answer in how to frame issues or use language. But that’s the work, isn’t it? As a facilitator, my goal is to help provide the most supportive, safe space possible for participants to learn and collaborate.  As a woman committed to social justice, I see my job as being awake to the dynamics of power and privilege – to be an effective ally in the collective journey toward beloved community. And I am so damned lucky to be surrounded by generous participants like Vanessa and Joan, and so many of my fellow facilitators and trainers, as I stumble along that path.

(* not their real names)

“Managing” social activist staff: two upcoming workshops

Managing” social activists…. Does that sound like an oxymoron, or what!?  Working in the not-for-profit sector for 20 years, I’ve noticed that the biggest messes many leaders face stem from a lack of skill in managing their people. Managing teams is especially tough when both the (often reluctant) managers AND the ‘managees’ are trained, if not fundamentally driven, to question authority and status quo power structures.  Two upcoming workshops – one on the West Coast of B.C., and one in Washington, D.C. – can help.

First, the fabulous  Deena Chochinov, a veteran organizational development consultant (among other skills) is leading a 2-part workshop on Talent Management on May 7th and May 14th in Vancouver, BC. As she explains, “This high-impact skill-building workshop will guide you through the key drivers and steps for creating a motivated, inspired and responsible workforce that will survive and thrive in these challenging times.” See for details.

On the other side of the continent, a workshop in D.C. addresses HR (human resources) and social activism in particular.  The Management Assistance Group is offering a 3-part workshop on Managing Real People, Managing Change, especially for social justice organizations. It’s being offered out of the Center for Community Change in Washington, D.C., starting with a full-day session on May 11th.  See for details.