How to communicate with clout

Posted on 15 Sep 2021

By Matthew Schulz, journalist, Our Community


As the head of a small organisation with "big ambitions", former ABC broadcaster and accomplished public sector communicator Lynne Haultain knows how to get a message across.

The voice of ABC radio's flagship Melbourne breakfast show for four years, Ms Haultain has parlayed those skills, earlier legal qualifications and recent work across three levels of government into her latest role as executive director of the Victorian Law Foundation.

At the foundation, Ms Haultain's communications focus has seen her continue to push the organisation's goal of increasing community knowledge of the law, and getting better access to it, through Law Week, the Everyday Law website, and smaller but important products such as advice booklets on disputes, pets and parking.

As an accomplished communications strategist and graduate of Our Community's Diploma of Business (Governance), she says there are several things not-for-profits can do to boost their profile, increase their impact in the political arena, protect and advance the interests of their clients and members, and make a difference in their chosen field.

Understand why you've got to be able to tell your story

Communication is "absolutely critical" for all organisations in what Ms Haultain dubs "the communication century", which is why not-for-profits can't afford to fall behind.

"If you're not connecting with people in a way that's accessible to them, you're not succeeding on any score. In every sphere whether not-for-profit or any other quarter -corporate, medical or legal - the criticality of communication is becoming increasingly evident."

She says those skills have become, appropriately, highly regarded by many organisations. And she says not-for-profits are no exception to the need to build the capacity "to engage with people, and explain, and give context to sometimes complex issues".

She says not-for-profits "have a desperate need to engage with both the communities they're trying to support, and to the society that they're hoping to have support them.

"You have to be able to tell a story."

Yes, but we don't have the resources of big corporates…

Media mastery is about knowing your story and good planning, says Lynne Haultain

That's no excuse, Ms Haultain says. And in fact, not-for-profits have strengths that bigger organisations would envy.

There's the potential for an organisation to feel overwhelmed by the size of the national and global media environment, especially when they're a small not-for-profit on a tight budget.

But she points out that there's no point trying to compare yourself to the big guns, because your goals and methods aren't the same.

"If you were to look at the corporate communications environment, so much of it is down to paid advertising, and I think many of us would be relatively cynical about their success in communicating genuinely to their community."

She says not-for-profits have "an extraordinary advantage in being as closely connected to their communities as they are".

At the same time, their target audience is often narrower, and social media and other avenues such as targeted emails have created more chances for them to connect.

"You don't need to be on national television, you need to talk to the audience that you're interested in."

In other words, good communication is about matching your intended audience with the mechanism you use to reach them.

Look locally to maximise your connections

For example, a not-for-profit in suburban Australia may want to target just a local patch.

"That's done through Facebook, it's done through the local newspaper, it's done through talking to the school, or the Probus group."

And not-for-profits should "maximise the relationships that they already have either through their own board members, their membership, or the engagement with local communities".

You'd be amazed once you start asking people: "Who can we go and talk to?", "How can we get in front of groups who might be interested in what we're doing?".

"You've got all sorts of links. You've got netball and football clubs, school groups, aged care facilities, you've got all sorts of possibilities on your doorstep, it's just about uncovering them - and then finding a way that tells a story that relates to that group."

Ms Haultain admits doing this can be labour intensive, especially when it comes to face-to-face meetings and networking, but it boils down to coming up with your basic story.

This, she says, can be "a one-pager that explains in clear terms, in a way that people will relate to, about what you're trying to do, and making sure that gets that in the hands of everybody with a newsletter or website."

Take control of your story

But a public profile comes with risks, especially if you leave your communications and media strategy in the hands of third parties (such as media outlets).

"The challenge in lots of contexts is being able to tell those stories in ways that don't compromise the people involved," Ms Haultain says.

"Not-for-profits have to be really careful about telling stories of clients or people they're supporting, for fear of crossing a line, whether it's privacy or their future success."

It's a tricky business, but full consultation and an understanding of the risks will smooth the way.

Ms Haultain's 20-year involvement with the Victorian Foundation for the Survivors of Torture - she is currently the chair - provides a case in point.

"It's very difficult for us to talk about clients. And the clients who are of most interest in the news are generally also the most vulnerable."

This means not just people in Australia, but their families and connections in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, who could be affected by media reports.

Similar issues affect organisations working on domestic violence, with wards of the state, in disability care and in many other sectors.

"That's why it's best if groups take control of their own story-telling, rather than inviting big media in. That media will always want to talk face-to-face with an individual. And that's for good reason. It's an extremely powerful device, and that's what media thrives on."

She says it's fantastic if you're able to work with the media in mutually beneficial ways, but options include blurring identities and creating "composite" characters who maintain your not-for-profit's "fundamental truth".

Such matters require a bit of strategic thinking, as well as creating trust in your team and with your clients, to ensure they don't suffer as a result of speaking up, Ms Haultain says.

When the story moves faster than you can

Flu outbreaks in aged care homes, hoax bomb threats at schools, charges laid over a miscreant worker's actions: often, things are fine until they suddenly aren't.

Ms Haultain says there are "a huge number of issues" that can arise in areas such as aged care, education and early childhood care.

"To be honest it's startling to me that organisations working in that space haven't worked through the implications of being on the wrong side of a media story."

She cites as an example the series of bomb threats that swept Australian schools in January 2016, affecting nearly 600 schools in Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT.

"That prompted many in education to consider: what happens when it happens to my school? How do we handle communications with students, parents, teachers? And what actions are we going to take?"

She says it also illustrated the way social media meant organisations were easily outpaced, with journalists monitoring Twitter and Facebook carefully.

"You need to be conscious of what sequence your communications take place: who you tell first, and how they might find out, and whether it's critical that they hear it from you, or from a Twitter repost, for instance."

What to do if you're 'under attack'

While things can be "tricky" if your organisation is in crisis, Ms Haultain says taking control is still (usually) your best option.

"My preferred model as a lifelong communicator is that it is better to speak than not. If you don't, somebody else will, and the public will make up their own mind about why you haven't spoken, and they may [infer] an awful lot, at odds with the truth."

There are occasions, though, if you find yourself under "severe attack" from an aggressive media pursuit, when there's "nothing to be gained from speaking out".

Knowing which approach to take needs to be considered case by case, and if you're unable to seek professional assistance, you should draw on your networks.

Develop your media and communications plans

Most organisations will want some kind of public profile, and that works better with a plan.

Ms Haultain says developing that plan can be as basic as recruiting talent with communications skills.

She says a "massive plan" or formal document might not be necessary. But clear thinking is.

This means having a clear understanding: "This is what we think and believe. This is the story we're trying to tell. This is the audience we're trying to get to."

"If stuff hits the fan, then we revert to these core values."

She says a platform of fundamentals - even in crisis - can help your organisation survive.

Basic crisis management may include ensuring everybody in the organisation knows who is to pick up the phone if 60 Minutes calls.

She stresses front-of-house staff are often the ones who need the clearest guidance about what to do about the media camped outside the building.

Even a simple plan should cover the basics, including "maintaining civil politeness", creating an "information tree" that spells out a policy on who tells and in what order, how to deal with several calls at once, ensuring someone is keeping tabs on what's happening on social media.

Often, an organisation will be aware that a big issue is looming on the horizon, such as a court case in which preparation is the key.

And it is important to consider your partners and how they might respond.

For example, one organisation Ms Haultain has worked closely with often deals with "dysfunctional families situations", often with other service providers.

"If you've set protocols, are your partners on board with that?"

In the same vein, you'll want to know that your "escalations work in the right order".

Why good comms may be your duty

Not-for-profits often find themselves at the centre of an increasingly politicised and divisive environment on matters ranging from asylum seekers to the environment to sex and gender issues.

And given mainstream media's insatiable appetite for "controversy and disagreement", Ms Haultain says it's possible for an organisation to make "a very quick pole vault into the public consciousness" with controversial comments.

Ms Haultain says the trick is to be able to "create that nuance" of an appropriate voice amid all the chatter.

"If you can put a view that's not hysterical, that's well-researched, well-considered, and comes from a source of real and long experience, I think you'll be taken seriously."

"In many instances NFPs may have a duty to do so, as the people with that wealth of insight. It bothers me sometimes that there's a lot of complaint about media treatment, but a lack of willingness to actually engage with it."

And now more than ever before, not-for-profits have the power to tell their stories.

"You don't need to wait for the tellie or print any more … and that direct communication is having a really profound effect."

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