What’s the DNA of Your Communications?

Can you briefly describe the role of your organization? In a consistent way? In a believable manner? In a way that differentiates you from your competitors?

When I first joined the American Red Cross, my answer to those questions was NO! To my surprise, I struggled to find simple, differentiating ways to describe the important work of the Red Cross. Being responsible for marketing and communications, I knew I had to find a solution quickly.

So, in my simplistic mind, I set out to find or create key messages that met these three criteria:

  1. Conversational. I needed messages that would roll of the tongue and sound genuine. They shouldn’t sound canned or pre-packaged. Personally, I didn’t care much for the stuffy phrase in our mission statement that says we “provide relief to victims of disaster and help people prevent, prepare for, and respond to emergencies.”
  2. Memorable. I wanted something that would stick in my mind even when I didn’t have a cheat sheet in front of me. I wanted to have anchor messages that would still be there if my mind went blank in front of a live TV camera.
  3. Differentiating. I needed to say something that no other organization could authentically say about itself. After all, it seems that every nonprofit tries to boast, “We care more!” or “We have the best volunteers.” If someone else can say the same thing, it’s neither unique nor differentiating.

My quest to find the right key messages took me on the following journey:

  • Review of current materials. I read the publications we’d produced. I scanned the Web site for our local chapter. I read through news releases we’d sent out. Though I found some common themes, I found the messages to be inconsistent and fragmented. I was peering into a kaleidoscope, it seemed, and seeing no meaningful patterns.
  • Online research. I tried wandering through the maze of our national Intranet. Finding something in my cluttered basement would have been much easier. I then studied the Web sites of other Red Cross chapters. I also Googled the Red Cross to see what was being said about the organization. In all cases, the quantity of information was overwhelming, but in too many cases the quality and consistency was underwhelming.
  • Interviews with staff and volunteers. I talked with long-time staff and conducted one-on-one interviews with a few volunteers. I then convened a series of informal focus groups. One question seemed to provoke the most insightful responses. I asked, “Assume you’re seated next to your Uncle Bob at Thanksgiving dinner. He turns and says, ‘You work with the Red Cross, so tell me what you really do?’ Amid the noise and other distractions, how do you respond?”
  • Consultation with the pros. The American Red Cross of Greater Kansas is fortunate to have a pro bono agency of record—Trozzolo Communications Group. The agency had helped other clients develop key messages and, prior to my arrival, they’d begun a creative process within my organization. Members of the agency’s creative team were great collaborative partners.

Ultimately, a small group of us boiled everything down to three words—three simple words to describe the role of the American Red Cross, especially during times of disaster.

Embedded in those three words is the genetic code—the DNA—of our communications. Supporting that overarching phrase are three bullet points that meet the initial criteria of being 1) conversational, 2) memorable and 3) differentiating.

In my next post I’ll share the key messages we came up with. In the meantime, I’d like to hear how others have created key messages to describe the differentiating essence of their work.

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