History of Strategic Communications
Neighborhood Partnerships (NP) has long understood the importance of speaking about the values that shape and inform our work. In 2004, NP led the affordable housing community in work with Larry Wallack of Portland State University to develop strategic messages about the importance and value of affordable housing and its community benefits. This work to unify our message contributed to the development of the Housing Alliance and fueled its success in creating a dedicated revenue source for housing.
In the process we gained an understanding of the power of shaping the way we talk about our work and our communities. We understand that the success of any communication effort is as much a result of how the message is received as the soundness of the facts, logic and figures supporting the message. And, we know now that by coupling the sciences of cognitive linguistics and cultural anthropology with the art of focus groups, polling, and other tools that it is possible to both understand and to change how your message is received.
In 2009, we were introduced to the Public Works project. Public Works has studied the way we talk about government and the economy, and works to change our message to improve public understanding of and support for government. Beginning in November 2009, we brought Patrick Bresette to Portland to present this research and to lead trainings and discussions. March 10, 2010 we held the first dinner meeting, a precursor to the “Leadership Salons”.
Neighborhood Partnerships knows that this work opens the possibilities of a new conversation, and offers a pathway out of old habits of oppositional or polarized communication. Our goal in this work is to help Oregon become the state we want it to be: an Oregon which offers its diversity of residents opportunities to thrive, pathways out of poverty and disenfranchisement and adequately supported public systems and structures as shared tools for these goals.
In the current climate, success is impossible without a concerted effort to re-frame the conversation about state revenues and spending, and without bringing attention to racial and class disparities and the harm they do to all of our residents. We have engaged a broad cohort of both established and emerging leaders in our effort. Our work empowers us all to advocate effectively for structural and systemic change and nurtures new, strategic linkages between advocacy organizations.
Neighborhood Partnerships, in concert with our partners, launched two training series on September 15th, 2010:
The Leadership Salons brought together high-level community leaders, state agency directors, elected officials, foundation staff, and advocates. These individuals are opinion leaders with significant spheres of influence. Speaking together they have the capacity to shift public dialogue and opinion.
The Advocate’s College delivered intensive training to 33 executive directors, communication directors, and advocacy directors of non-profit and public organizations over ten months. These individuals are working within and across interest groups to test and refine advocacy messages that promote a common vision. We selected participants who have a clear issue focus and advocacy or campaign plan, a commitment to strategic communications, and a recognition that building public support for governmental action and resources is an underlying priority. At the same time, they gain the skills and tools they need to effectively advance their own organizational or coalition agendas – key pieces in creating the Oregon we envision.
The Advocate’s College met eight times over ten months. Advocates were introduced to Demos’ (now Public Works) work on government and the economy. They also began thinking about how their issues are framed, what competing stories exist regarding their issues, and began thinking about the values that underpin their work. The group worked to discern patterns in the framing of current issues and learned to use social math – a way to make statistics and numbers more accessible and meaningful.The group learned to develop and use message boxes. These are tools to help create, deliver and stay on message when talking to legislators, the media, and other audiences.
We worked intensively with Dr. Frank Gilliam, Dean of the School of Public Affairs at UCLA, on talking about race and disparities. In January 2011, the curriculum focused on promising practices for effectively mobilizing members to communicate a message – how to train spokespersons and develop briefing and communications tools around specific proposals. Advocates presented three minutes of legislative testimony or were part of a three minute media interview.
In March 2011, Axel Aubrun of Topos Partnership joined us to share his current work and research on communicating about inequality and disparities. We also spent time with advocates on real-time problem solving and consultation on their legislative agendas.
Late April 2011 brought Patrick Bresette back armed with examples and inspiration from other states to help us as we were enmeshed in struggles over revenue and spending priorities. Our work focused again on real-time problem solving, keeping our messages lined up and “big enough”, and maintaining an aspirational tone in what felt like desperate times.
The final session was held in July 2011. The new communications leaders made final presentations to one another in small groups, and elevated three presentations to the whole group. They discussed the implications of what they learned and experienced for their organizing and civic engagement work.
2011–2012 — Current work and Next Steps
Our work continues, with an emphasis on supporting those who are working:
- To build the personal and financial resiliency of low and moderate income Oregonians through housing opportunities and asset building;
- To advance state and local policy agendas that complement the broad issue focus of Neighborhood Partnerships; and
- To engage and support new leaders and communities in work to creatively address disparities and inequalities in opportunity and achievement.
In September 2011, we assembled a group of our talented graduates of the Advocate’s College, and invited them to join a Fellows Group. This group of eleven policy leaders meets regularly to share expertise and strategies, and to engage in focused learning around common challenges. Initial topic areas included: strategic considerations around developing and using opinion polling; changing media strategies in the age of print media decline; and marketing as a complementary strategy to messaging.
Advocate’s College Two launched in late October 2011. The cohort of twenty advocates is engaged in a broad array of issue areas and advocacy efforts, from state revenue increases to housing to health care transformation. Four sessions are planned between October and March. Patrick Bresette of Public Works and Liana Winett of Portland State University are lead faculty, supported by Janet Byrd and Alison McIntosh of NP and joined by Larry Wallack, Dean of the School of Urban and Public Affairs at PSU.
Neighborhood Partnerships staff have developed several training modules for colleagues in Oregon. Currently, those include strategic communications for new leaders; for those working on issues of housing and homelessness, and for groups fine tuning their policy and advocacy agendas.