My Mission as a Red Cross Communicator

October 3, 2012

Those who know me best know I’m wired to begin any project by asking “Why?”

Before I launch a major initiative, I must first understand the objective. Why am I doing this? What is my mission?

Before I spend time and energy working on specific tasks, I must first understand why the project itself is important.  What are we trying to accomplish? What is our purpose?

Before I can effectively lead a communications team, I must first understand why my department exists. What is our mission? What purpose do we communicators serve? What is our raison d’être?

What is our mission?

Seriously, if we don’t have an answer, how we can’t expect others to value our work?

This summer I wrote a mission statement to serve as the cornerstone of our communications plan for the coming year. Here is the mission of the communications department of the Red Cross, Kansas City Region:

Mission of the Communications Department

We share information, tell stories and engage in conversations that inspire people to join the Red Cross in fulfilling its mission.

Mission of the American Red Cross

The American Red Cross prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.

The mission of the Red Cross inspires me to be part of something bigger than myself.

The mission of my communications team focuses me on the important work we do as a Red Cross communicators. Our mission statement helps us to make good choices about how we should spend our time. It guides us as we invest the precious resources entrusted to the communications department.

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Two Guys Giving Birth to a Communications Plan

October 1, 2012

During the past 18 months, a national reorganization has dramatically changed everything within the American Red Cross. Though it looks very different than it once did, the organization remains true to its mission and core values.

Those of us who are proud to work as Red Cross communicators have experienced significant shifts in our roles and responsibilities. To help us navigate these changes, my co-worker—Jamie Dierking—and I just completed a communications plan.

The planning process at times felt like giving birth (something I’ve never done), yet it was probably more valuable than the actual document itself. I’m reminded of what General Dwight D. Eisenhower said: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Our planning process spanned several weeks, interrupted by deploying to a national disaster, responding to increased inquiries from the local news media and handling our everyday work in communications. Our process consisted of asking ourselves the following questions:

  1. Where do things currently stand? Following the reorganization, what is our niche? Answering those questions resulted in the creation of the situation analysis portion of the plan.
  2. Why does our department exist? What real purpose do we serve within the Red Cross? As we articulated those answers, our mission statement came into much better focus.
  3. What impact do we really have? What difference do we make in the overall success of the organization? Answering those questions helped us form our vision statement.
  4. What do we actually do? As the dust settles after the national reorganization, what is our role? Also, what do we no longer do that we once did?
  5. What are our internal strengths and weaknesses? Externally, what opportunities await us, and what threats confront us? Although not included in the final document, four separate SWOT charts were developed for a) the communications department in general and then for our roles in b) media relations, c) disaster public affairs and d) social engagement.
  6. Having thought through all of this, what are we actually going to do? What do we intend to achieve during the coming year? What is our plan of action for media relations? For disaster public affairs? For social engagement? Within each of these categories we developed specific goals.

We fully understand that our work must focus on creating content and producing results. Because this is a transitional year, however, many of the items contained in the plan focus on process rather than outcomes.

Above all, though, we know that our ultimate goal as communicators is to continue making a significant difference in the success of the Red Cross. We are eager to continue doing that.

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Things I Hope Never to See (Again) in a PowerPoint

July 15, 2012

Recently I awoke from a long afternoon nap. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I looked around and realized I was in a conference room with other people.

At the other end of the room was a laptop, a projector and a screen. On the screen I saw a sleep-inducing PowerPoint that served as the teleprompter for a presenter who spoke in a monotonous, soothing and hypnotic voice.

Hoping no one noticed my return from a soporific state, I reached for my pen and tried to give the impression I was taking notes. Instead, I found myself making a list of things I hope to never again see in a PowerPoint presentation. Here’s what I came up with:

  1. More than six words per slide. PowerPoint should be the backdrop against which the “actor” performs. With more than six words on a slide, it’s too easy for a speaker to use it as a teleprompter and read from a prepared script.
  2. Cheesy images or clip art. Not every slide needs artwork. If in doubt, leave it out. Less is more, and I appreciate simplicity.
  3. Spreadsheets or tables. Some business people do not realize that PowerPoint and Excel are actually two different Microsoft Office products. For me, a spreadsheet projected onto a screen never works. Never.
  4. Fancy slide transitions. The purpose of cute transitions is simply to wake up an audience, alerting them that a new (and hopefully more interesting) slide is coming. If the presentation is designed correctly in the first place, elaborate transitions are merely distractions.
  5. Hyperlinks. Really? If I can’t click on them, don’t show them to me.
  6. Bullet points. Here’s an idea:  take each bullet point and make a separate slide for each. Then move more quickly from slide to slide.

Somewhere right now, someone is preparing a PowerPoint presentation that I must endure in the coming days or weeks. If I could give that person only one bit of advice, it would be this:  Please, please read Garr Reynold‘s book Presentation Zen.

The book gives practical advice on reaching an audience through simplicity and storytelling. Now in its second edition, the book is available in both paper and digital formats. I own both, so next time I’m incarcerated by another boring PowerPoint presentation, I can make good use of that time and re-read Presentation Zen on my iPad.


Three Reasons Why I Write News Releases

July 8, 2012

In my career as a corporate communicator, I’ve written hundreds of news releases. My reasons for writing those releases fall into three categories:

  1. I have something newsworthy to share. The only good reason to write a news release is because it contains actual news. That’s so basic that any further explanation would only be condescending to my esteemed communications colleagues.
  2. I need to recognize a donor or partner. In the nonprofit world, a donation will occasionally carry with it a high expectation for publicity. In such cases, it’s pretty easy to decipher the communicator’s motives for writing a news release. If the headline and first paragraph focus mostly on the donor, you can assume that donor recognition was the primary reason. Granted, many sizable donations have a significant impact in the community. That is inherently newsworthy and therefore deserving of a news release (which would automatically move it to my first category).
  3. I am too weary to fight internal politics. Entrenched within any organization, you will find someone who believes that his or her “cotton candy” fluff is newsworthy. (Actually, if you’re a communicator, that person will find you.) Perhaps they want recognition during a special month honoring their particular profession. Maybe they just feel good about what they do and want the world to know. Reluctantly, I’ll admit that on rare occasions I’ve taken the path of least resistance and written an insipid press release merely to pacify someone for political reasons.

Three Questions to Ask Up Front

Here are three questions that help me to focus on writing news releases that actually contain news. These are also good questions to ask at the beginning of any communications project.

  1. Who do we want to communicate with? If we don’t know who we are targeting then we should not be communicating. To speak to all is to speak to none. There is no such thing as the general public.
  2. Why do we want them to have this information? What do we want the target audience to do with the information we share? Is there a call to action? “Getting the word out” is a means to an end. Raising awareness is a process, not a goal.
  3. What is the best way to share this information with them? A news release is typically distributed through the traditional media—TV, radio or newspaper. Sometimes, though, social media can be a much more effective way to communicate with a target audience. At other times we might find it most effective to mail a letter, send an email or write a handwritten note. After all, a news release is not the only tool in a communicator’s toolbox.

By definition, a news release contains news. For good reason, it is not called a publicity release. Disseminating news is the only valid reason to write a news release. Doing so for any other reason compromises our integrity and relevance as professional communicators.

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The Time I Wrote a Letter to the Editor

May 2, 2012

Once upon a time, I lived in Portland, Oregon where I did public relations for a local hospital.

The medical center was well-respected and almost always received positive news coverage. One day, however, a headline writer for The Oregonian newspaper hurriedly summarized a positive story with a less-than-positive choice of words. The story described how the hospital offered a signing bonus to recruit nurses during a severe nursing shortage. Instead of describing the bonus as an recruitment incentive, however, the headline writer used the word “bribe.” To his credit, he put quotes around the word to indicate its use as a colloquialism.

The hospital’s president (my boss) thought the newspaper was implying that he engaged in unethical, under-the-table transactions. He was enraged and immediately ordered me to write a letter to the editor expressing our indignation. Read the rest of this entry »


Does Anyone Care that March Is ________ Month?

March 1, 2012

Years ago, I began my career as a hospital public relations intern. My responsibilities included promoting National Hospital Week which occurs each year in May. I really tried to make the general public aware of this momentous occasion, but I eventually realized that no one outside of the hospital really cared. I was disappointed that my well-written news releases failed to convert that week into a newsworthy event.

Over time I discovered that almost every hospital professional (except for PR interns) had a day or week designated in their honor. For example, National Doctors Day is celebrated on March 30.

National Nurses Week begins each year on May 6th and ends on May 12th, the birth date of Florence Nightingale. During that week there is a National Student Nurses Day and also the globally-celebrated International Nurses Day. To further complicate things, each subspecialty within nursing has a special day or week—emergency nurses, gastrointestinal nurses, oncology nurses, pediatric nurses, cardiovascular nurses, neonatal nurses, perianesthesia nurses, nurse anesthetists, operating room nurses, IV (infusion) nurses, neuroscience nurses, school nurses, ad infinitum.

Oh, and don’t forget about the national days and weeks recognizing pharmacists, physical therapists, dietitians, occupational therapists, food service workers, respiratory therapists, social workers, home health providers and medical transcriptionists.

Red Cross Month begins today

March was first proclaimed Red Cross Month in 1943 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Since then, every president has designated March as Red Cross Month. This is a time when we hope to remind everyone about the work of the American Red Cross. We also want people to understand how we depend on public support to help people in need.

So, as you celebrate Red Cross Month, please don’t be distracted by March Madness, St. Patrick’s Day, Super Tuesday, Earth Day, Daylight Savings Time and the beginning of Spring (the vernal equinox). Furthermore, please don’t be sidetracked by those hapless PR interns who have been assigned the task of writing news releases to educate you that March is also: Read the rest of this entry »


Marketing OR Communications? If You Had to Choose, Which Would You Pick?

August 8, 2011

For years I have been amused when a nonprofit organization would label one of its key departments “Marketing AND Communications.” To me, that always seemed redundant. After all, you never hear a CFO claim responsibility for the Department of Finance, Accounting and Accounts Payable.

A university president once talked with me about leading his marketing and communications team. When I asked if he would consider shortening the title for simplicity, he emphatically declined. For that and other reasons, neither of us seriously considered forming a working partnership.

Later, when I taught marketing at another university, I spent considerable time talking about the relationship between marketing and communications. I never believed the two terms were synonymous or interchangeable, and I drilled into my students the concept that communications comes at the end of the marketing process.

Five years ago I left my position as Vice President of Marketing at United Way. Although communications was part of my portfolio, it always grated on me when my CEO referred to my department as “marketing and communications.” Although I appreciated his thorough description of my team’s role, I also thought he was being unnecessarily redundant.

Read the rest of this entry »


Career Transition, Blog Posts and a Presidential Hug

July 7, 2011

Three months ago I learned that my job at the American Red Cross would likely be eliminated.

Nationally, the Red Cross has been undergoing a massive, top-to-bottom reorganization that will affect every person affiliated with the organization. The restructuring will reduce expenses and increase revenues, all with a focus on keeping the mission relevant in a rapidly-changing environment. To their credit, our national leaders have openly shared the unfolding changes via e-mails, online videos and frequent conference calls.

Anticipating that my position would be among those eliminated by the end of the summer, I shared the discomforting news with my wife and family. Then, with the clock ticking towards the start of a new fiscal year, I launched an under-the-radar job search. I first revised my resume and LinkedIn profile. With the full understanding and support of my boss, I shifted my networking into a higher gear and sent e-mails to a couple dozen strategically-placed contacts. I was encouraged by their immediate offers to help.

Prior to launching the public phase of my job search, I developed personal business cards, a career-highlights brochure and an assortment of collateral materials to use when the appropriate time came. Read the rest of this entry »


A Thank You from Joplin

June 26, 2011

A favorite memory from Joplin came in the middle of an uneventful afternoon in the Red Cross shelter.

A young girl turned 11 years old.

Because she and her family lost their house in the tornado, the shelter’s dining room provided the best place for a birthday celebration. To make the occasion special, a friend baked a cake and brought it into the shelter. The bright smile on the girl’s face demonstrated how happy she was that someone remembered her birthday.

When she saw me, she eagerly asked if I would like a piece of her cake. I said, “Yes, but only a small one, please.” She cut into the cake and handed me a piece three or four times larger than my definition of small.

I thanked her, honored to be including in her party.

As I ate the cake, I took special note of the girl’s sweet spirit. I imagined how she and her family had made other plans to spend the day in a completely different way. Not only did the tornado blow those plans aside, it destroyed the house where the girl and her family lived. Now, they were living temporarily in our Red Cross shelter. Read the rest of this entry »


Marie – An Inspiring Volunteer and Storm Victim

June 21, 2011

Before the monster tornado struck, Marie was an active volunteer with the American Red Cross in Joplin. The night the tornado hit, Marie lost her apartment and most of her personal possessions.

Unhurt, she began driving through the debris towards help. Along the way, she helped others, even pulling an injured truck driver to safety. When the debris made driving impossible, she began walking. Along the way, she helped with the initial search and rescue efforts, checking to see if anyone needed help. Read the rest of this entry »


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