Communicate With Purpose: Understanding the Power of 'Why'

 Flickr Creative Commons photo by Katie Sayer

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Katie Sayer

Organizations are often very good at talking about what they do.

But the groups that often have the greatest success connecting with donors, motivating activists, or getting media attention do not spend much time talking about their programs and services.

Instead, they are adept at articulating why they do what they do.

Nonprofits, for example, aren't just about providing meals or medical care or clean water. They are laser focused on showing people how their work can make a real and lasting difference -- and what they ultimately hope to accomplish.

Businesses, meanwhile, aren't just about selling products or services. The most successful companies are able to translate why those products and services matter -- and how they are improving the world.

If you're struggling to find your voice or having a hard time connecting with potential supporters or customers, it's important to take some time to think clearly about why you exist -- and then commit to ensuring that you articulate that 'why'.

The shift can be a game changer because while your ‘what’ may be interesting and informative, it’s your ‘why’ that can be truly inspirational – and spark people to action.

The Search for Purpose

There's a reason many organizations struggle to make this shift and default to talking about what they do.

It boils down to this:

What is easy. Why is hard.


It's easy, for instance, for the charity that provides meals to talk about how many meals it serves and the need to make sure its shelves are stocked with cans of vegetables and boxes of pasta.

But if you're looking to move people in a deeper way and advance your cause to achieve more meaningful results, it's important to move beyond just talking about the what (the cans and boxes) and being able to articulate the why -- purpose behind what you do.

Why are you working to feed people?

What is the larger impact of your work?

These questions require a deeper level of thought than the more simple question of "what do you do?". They prompt you to consider what motivates your staff, your donors and supporters. And, ultimately, these questions demand you get to the core of why your organization exists in the first place – and whether your collective actions align with your true purpose.

By taking the time to answer these questions, however, your organization can gain a clearer sense of its purpose. In turn, you have a much better chance to inspire people to take action on your behalf, change minds, and get attention for your work.

Weave Purpose Into Everything You Do

For the hypothetical hunger charity described above, digging deep to find out why you're providing those meals can lead to some inspiring discoveries.

For instance, it discovers that families that have access to regular, nutritious food are healthier, that their children are more likely to succeed in school, and that our society and economy is ultimately much stronger.

Helping families get good food helps improve our schools, our economy, and our society.

That's purpose!

But it's not just enough to know and understand that purpose.

You also have to know how to articulate that purpose.

Every day.

In every piece of written communications. In every fundraising conversation. In every board meeting.

It has to be front and center on your website, show up in every meaningful conversation on Facebook, and be a part of every pitch you make to the media.

Doing this requires discipline from your leadership and your communications team. It requires training your board and your staff. And it requires consistency.

But if you're wondering why some organizations are getting more media coverage, more donors or customers, and more support than yours, it's probably because they've taken the time to define their purpose -- and they have the discipline to make sure that purpose is embedded in everything they say and do.

6 Reasons to Take the Problem Solver Approach to a PR Challenge

Back in my newspaper reporting days, I had a memorable assignment on a charter boat that specialized in taking business clients fishing on Lake Erie.

The voyage started as one of those classic can’t-catch-a-break Charlie Brown days. Before we even got off the dock, the boat had a minor mechanical problem that delayed departure. Once on the water, the sonar fish finder was acting up and a passing boat kicked up a stomach-churning wake. When we finally did enter some prime walleye waters, the fishing lines promptly got tangled.

The guy who was something of a first mate and charged with taking care of the clients was tripping all over himself trying to explain away all the difficulties—and how this was most certainly a rare exception to how things went on the water.

Then the captain, a retired business executive, cut him short and rolled out this memorable gem.

“You’re always going to have problems,” he said with absolute calm. “It’s how you deal with those problems that makes all the difference.”

The first mate, silent, nodded in eager agreement.

The mood on the boat immediately lifted as captain and crew went about the business of systematically untangling their problems. We landed some pretty nice fish that day. And they got largely positive press in the local paper. 

The captain’s words come back to me often when I see organizations dealing with various PR challenges and crises. And those words remind me of the power of positioning your leaders as problem solvers in the face of adversity or criticism.

Typically, when the proverbial boat starts taking on water, organizations either go the no-comment route or take the perceived high road and issue a carefully crafted statement with hopes the problem fades away.

Option 1 is almost always a bad call. No comment screams cover-up or cluelessness, never an impression you want to leave with the public. Beyond that, it rarely solves your problem. Often it exacerbates it.

Option 2 can have its place, particularly when it comes to challenging issues that have legal implications or are still unfolding. Yet I’d argue this approach is overused, and often becomes a crutch, creating a false sense that the issue has been adequately addressed. 

A third, and I think better path to deal with many PR issues, is to take the problem-solver approach. Specifically, you position your leadership as problem solvers and then it is through that lens that you craft your messaging and lay out your plan for dealing with the issue at hand.

Here are six reasons this approach often offers a better path.

·      It unfreezes thinking. Leaders who are feeling cornered are much more likely to fall back on their instinct to hunker down in no-comment mode. By framing the challenge in the problem-solver approach, you have a better chance to shift the conversation to brainstorming and assessing viable alternatives to tackling the problem—and how those options could be positioned in messaging.  The added benefit is that beyond lip service, you can actually help develop a legitimate action plan to deal with the issues.

·      It helps you acknowledge and address the problem head-on. You can’t highlight how you are going to solve a problem if you haven’t clearly defined it. Turning the focus toward how the problem can be addressed prods your leadership toward all-important transparency. Maybe all of the details can’t be revealed, but there is more wiggle room to acknowledge the challenge when you know it will be framed within an action-oriented solution.

·      It helps you quickly pivot to solutions: Which headline would you prefer: “Acme hammered by customer complaints” or “Acme rolls out three-point plan to tackle customer complaints”? Thought so. The problem-solver approach naturally spins the story forward, and puts the focus on the solution.  If you act fast enough, sometimes you can even head off that initial bad headline avoid being put in damage-control mode.

·      It buys you goodwill:  People by and large are pretty forgiving, particularly when they believe an individual or organization is trying to be forthright, transparent, and focused on fixing problems. If nothing else, you’re likely to get at least some props for taking the high road and not hiding behind “no comment.” As a former reporter, I can tell you any attempt at transparency also endears you to the press and helps strengthen those key relationships.

·      It positions your leaders as can-do problem solvers. Of course, the most valuable and lasting benefit of this approach is that it positions your leadership as clear-eyed people of action. They become the captain of the boat, instead of the fretting first mate.  It’s likely that long after the buzz of the latest PR issue has died down, what will be remembered is the sense that yours is an organization that deals with issues in a transparent and action-oriented way. What more could you ask for?

·      It boosts your credibility as a strategic advisor. Sure, this approach can carry some level of risk and may not fit every situation. Yet for instances where it makes sense, there’s a pretty good chance your leadership will start seeing you in a whole new light. You become more than the PR flack that puts together a prepared statement, and more of a trusted advisor who is a steady hand to help navigate rough waters.

Here’s the thing to remember: you’re always going to have problems. It’s how you deal with those problems that makes all the difference.


5 Ways to Use Social Media to Get Your Story Told

 Creative Commons image courtesy of

Creative Commons image courtesy of

During my days as a newspaper reporter and editor, I was always on the lookout for story ideas.

More often than not, these ideas didn’t come through news releases or pitches.

They came through something I observed. Through a conversation with a neighbor. Or through something I overheard in the checkout line at the grocery store.

More recently, these ideas came through my Twitter feed, a conversation on LinkedIn or a message on Facebook.

And I wasn’t alone.

According to Cision’s 2015 Global Social Journalism Study, 94 percent of journalists use social media daily  — with 67 percent spending up to two hours a day. In the U.S., 25 percent of journalists report that they use social media to make new contacts and 12 percent report that they have published stories based on information found on social media.

Social media provides reporters with an always-updating stream of potential story ideas — and many journalists rely on their feeds on Twitter and Facebook as a way to connect with concepts and trends that shape their reporting.

As a result, social media is an important tool for savvy media-relations professionals who are looking to get their organizations and their work in front of reporters and editors.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should instantly start tweeting story pitches at reporters.

Instead, your best path is to use social media to develop relationships with journalists that are of high value to your nonprofit. As you do so, you’ll build a level of credibility that can help you get contacted and — later — pitch ideas.

Below are five strategies for using social media to your advantage in media relations.

Gather Intelligence

Want to pitch a story idea to a reporter? It helps to understand his or her interests.

Social media offers you an opportunity to learn about what makes that reporter tick.

Many reporters are regular users of Twitter. In fact, the Cision study found that 71 percent of U.S. journalists are using the platform.

And they don’t just Tweet about what they’ve written or reported. Often, they will share stories or ideas from others that offer a window into topics and issues that they find interesting or newsworthy.

As a result, if there are specific journalists or bloggers who are important targets, it’s useful to follow them on Twitter, on their professional Facebook pages, on Instagram or through LinkedIn.

These networks can offer a great window into their work — and provide you with insights that can help you with your next pitch.

Build Relationships

Journalists have been facing a lot of heat lately. But, believe it or not, many of them are approachable.

This is especially true on social media. More than two-fifths of journalists in the Cision study say they reply to comments on social media sites.

Don’t be afraid to post thoughtful replies or comments to Tweets and posts from journalists. They might not always reply back, but well-placed comments can lead to conversations. And those conversations can ultimately lead to relationships.

Respond to Breaking Events

When news breaks, many news organizations will deploy a reporter to follow what’s happening on social media to gauge reactions and gather information.

If a breaking story relates to your mission, you stand a good chance of attracting the attention of journalists if your organization is sharing information and facts that can help put the situation into context.

If conversations about that story are getting organized around a specific hashtag, be sure to use that tag on any content you share. Posting facts, insights and links will not only help the public understand what’s happening, it can send a signal to journalists that your organization knows its stuff and is worth contacting for an interview.

And even if it doesn’t lead to an interview, it could lead to a spot in their news coverage. A growing number of news organizations publish tweets as they are covering events. If your organization’s tweet gets picked up, it could help position you as a thoughtful voice.

Promote Your Thought Leadership

If your organization has a blog or produces regular online content, it should already be sharing that content on social media.

But if it isn’t, here’s an argument for changing that practice — it can get the attention of journalists.

Reporters and editors will often read blogs from thought leaders in their coverage areas. And they’re more likely to be finding those blogs if they see them in their social feeds.

Make Your Pitch

It’s not out of bounds to use a social networking site to pitch a reporter directly.

Usually, the best avenue for making a pitch to a reporter on social media is to do it privately — through a direct message on Twitter or through Facebook Messenger. This is not only more likely to get the reporter’s attention, but it also makes it easier to have a conversation, since it’s not being broadcast to every one of your friends and followers.

Such pitches can be effective. Antionette Kerr — who writes regularly for her local newspaper in North Carolina — told me that she wrote a recent column after receiving a note through Facebook Messenger. The person who made the pitch worked for a local library and noted in her pitch that she noticed Antionette’s fondness for posting items on Facebook about books and reading.

The pitch worked, in part, because it directly tied to Antionette’s interests.

The person who made the pitch took the time to get to know Antionette and follow her before making her move.

The lesson: social media can be effective if you use it smartly and tactfully.

10 Tips for Positioning Your Annual Report in a Banner Year

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For many companies, this year’s annual report will feel something like a victory lap.

The stock market’s bull run has become a stampede, smashing record highs time and again. As of this writing the S&P 500 Index is up 19% year to date, with strong returns rippling across most sectors.

Barring any last-minute calamity, most annual reports will come bearing good—if not great—news for shareholders.

Of course, amid the investor euphoria it may be tempting to view this year’s report as a slam dunk. Roll out the great news, sprinkle in a few notes of caution about the future unknown, and call it a day.

Yet, we would argue that positioning an annual report for a good year can be every bit as challenging as doing so in one when your shareholders got clobbered. It’s essential to be thoughtful and strategic, both in advising your leadership and executing the report itself. 

Here are 10 things to think about as you consider how to tell the story of a banner year.

1.     This one will get read. Everyone likes a winner, and odds are your shareholders will be still basking in the glow of solid returns when your annual report arrives in their mailbox or e-mail.  Unlike tough years, when some shareholders first instinct might be to pitch the report in the circular file, many will be eager to dig into the breakdown of what led to your success, and how you aim to maintain it. Make sure every aspect of your 2017 report shines, and that the content reflects your strength, showcases your management team, and reminds shareholders why they invested in you in the first place.

2.     Don’t go overboard on your theme. The tricky thing about annual reports is that they typically come out well into the new year when the economic landscape can be decidedly different. So instead of rolling out the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner, consider a theme that highlights your momentum and strengths, rather than just focusing on great results.

3.     Be true to your voice: Analysts and serious investors love nothing more than consistency. Keep that in mind when framing the approach and messaging of your report. While it’s OK to highlight great results, make sure the tone rings true with how your leadership has been talking about your company on quarterly calls and throughout the year.

4.     Play up the good news. Don’t be afraid to tout your success, but make sure you do so in a way that is authentic and acknowledges the benefits of a sound economy and unprecedented stock market.

5.     Don’t bury the bad news. With strong results making headlines, the temptation will be there to ignore or gloss over any significant challenges that may have affected the business in 2017. Resist it. Address the hurdles and missteps head on, and make it clear how you are attacking them moving forward. Your shareholders and analysts will appreciate your candor, and you will benefit from the cover of strong overall performance.

6.     Focus on what sets you apart. Michael Scott could have run a company this year and shown positive gains. Well, that may be a stretch, but it’s essential to highlight actions you took to differentiate from your competitors and how those actions made a good year even better.

7.     Show you're playing the long game. The phrase ‘past results are not an indicator of future performance’ is never far from a savvy investor’s mind. The smart companies are always preparing for rain, even when it seems like the sun will never stop shining. Highlight the proactive moves you have made to thrive – or at least limit the pain – in any economic conditions.

8.     Manage expectations. You don’t want to burst everyone’s balloon, but in the wake of what may well be a once-in-a-lifetime year for stocks, a solid dose of reality is in order. Make sure your CEO’s letter frames out realistic expectations of what is ahead.

9.     Show you care. A great year offers a prime opportunity to demonstrate how a rising tide lifts all boats. Make sure to highlight concrete examples of how you are fulfilling your company’s purpose beyond the bottom line through community involvement and charitable work. Acknowledge the contributions of employees, show appreciation for your customers, and let your shareholders know the ways you are engaged with the communities you serve.

10.  Create a report that works all year long. It’s not just shareholders who can benefit from an annual report. Your report highlighting your strong year can be an essential tool for your sales team to share with clients, or with HR to show to prospective hires. It can also serve as the foundation for your content and marketing efforts moving forward. Make sure the report is designed and presented in a way that offers the best ROI.

History tells us that it is unlikely we will see a stock market like 2017 any time soon—or ever again. Make the most of it through a well-crafted and well positioned annual report that works for you all year long. Then go ahead and take that victory lap. 

Scott Westcott is Corporate Practice Leader for Turn Two Communications.