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The Power of Simple

How to translate complicated, scientific reports into public action.

I recently read an article by a family friend, Lisa Benenson, that I thought the Conservation District community may find enlightening. Lisa is the chief communications officer for the Natural Resources Defense Council. As she puts it,

“NRDC is a 46-year-old shop mostly made of up policy wonks, and powered by science and law. We’re the folks who helped bring about theClean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and contributed some critical thinking to President Obama’s plan to cut carbon pollution from power plants. But for much of our history, communicating our work to the public was an afterthought. We won by going deep, and getting our wonk on. And we were more than a little suspicious of anything that smacked of “dumbing down” our approach.”

But they hired Lisa to find new and unexpected means of capturing public attention for NRDC’s work and issues. Which sounds like something that conservation districts desperately need as well.

I recommend that everyone read the full article, about how NRDC created a national dialogue about food waste. But in case you can’t, here are a few things that Lisa and her team learned along the way:

  1. Keep it simple. Jargon doesn’t make your work sound smarter; it just makes it harder for everyone else to understand. We looked for core messages and statistics, and prioritized those to deliver compelling story ideas to potential publishers.
  2. Know your content. The better communications staffers understand the project, the better they’ll be at creating an arsenal of compelling story angles. We partner with our program teams early and often.
  3. Focus on solutions. Telling folks about a problem makes a story for a day, but if you can also talk about solutions, your work will have staying power. For food waste, we offered a range of actionable recommendations to reduce food waste that was tailored to different audiences—including farms, restaurants, grocery stores, and consumers.
  4. Make your story timely. Every story benefits from a news hook. For “Wasted,” we connected our story ideas to the nation’s devastating drought and growing worries about rising food prices.
  5. Share the unexpected. The only way to stop reporters from throwing your story idea straight into the trash is by writing a gotta-look subject line. We leveraged our most compelling factoids with “Did you know?” headlines that caught attention.
  6. Remember to show and tell. Using visual, evocative, and personal language helps people see the urgency of existing problems and how they can change. For instance: The average American wastes so much food that it’s like buying four bags of groceries and leaving one in the store.
  7. Bolster street cred. We wove many real-life examples and success stories into the report, our blogs, and our press releases to add a layer of authority and credibility to our ideas. The fact that businesses and chefs are voluntarily adopting food waste solutions we proposed proves that these stories helped develop trust.
  8. Repeat yourself. Don’t think you’ll bore people if you say the same thing over and over. Repeating your message makes it stick. For us, the statistics were the most powerful message.
  9. Befriend the gatekeepers. Identify the right press contacts at national, syndicated stations and wires, and pitch reporters way ahead of your actual release date with embargoed information to secure stories in high-profile media outlets. Coverage there will drive coverage in other outlets and generate local stories.
  10. Sustain the buzz. Presenting your expert (in our case, researcher Dana Gunder) as a thought leader and getting them to blog allows you to spin new story angles on an already hot topic.

The Power of Simple was originally published on the Stanford Social Innovation Review, as part of an ongoing series on The Case for Communications, in which leaders from an array of foundations and nonprofits share case studies showcasing strategic communications efforts that delivered impact, drove change, and advanced their missions. I suspect the rest of the articles may be worth reading as well.

Kate Arpin

Kate is the Communications and Technology Manager for Soil & Water Conservation Districts of Montana. She manages the website, puts out The Montana Conservationist every other week, and assists conservation districts with technology, websites, and communications.

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