"I wish I would not have said that." How many times have you thought that, after the fact?
This might have been what E. Gordon Gee, President of The Ohio State University, thought after remarks he made in the past few weeks.
In attempting to bring levity to a significant issue, his remarks became offensive and misrepresented the university. Levity that is at the expense of others, at the wrong place and wrong time, carries the risk of alienating and discouraging the listener, as well as creating a public relations nightmare.
The remarks that Mr. Gee made prompted a letter of reprimand from the Trustees of The Ohio State University (made available to the media through a records request). Media reports of the letter made it clear that the Trustees are well aware that one of the President's roles is to be an ambassador and inspirational leader for the institution.
Not only is the president, executive director, or CEO of a nonprofit tasked with being an ambassador, but everyone associated with the cause and the organization has the potential to be an ambassador.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
While this phrase is often attributed to Stan Lee and his superhero story, Spider-Man, the phrase has its roots in the first century. The concept can be found in Christ’s words in the book of Luke; in the writings of Voltaire; in records kept by British Parliament; and references made by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In your communication planning, one of the objectives should be to develop core messages that support the organization’s goals and objectives. These will be important points that relate to your purpose and mission.
Message, Story, and Authenticity
- “Keep your story straight.”
- “Stay on message.”
- “These are the talking points.”
Each of these phrases is more about presentation than about practice. Words can be rehearsed, conversations can be practiced, and speakers can be prepped for what they will say. What truly resonates with an audience is authenticity – when what is said and how it is delivered is natural, confident, sincere, and uplifting.
The core messages aren’t stories. The core messages are the foundation upon which stories can be created, and they serve as the filter for what stories support the organization’s purpose. The core messages are built upon facts and information, formed from the purpose for which the organization exists, and are the elements of truth that will inform your audience.
Stories are what inspire your audience. Good storytelling can come from a variety of sources – the design and communication team, testimonials from your audience, and everyday experience in delivering programs and services. Good stories have the potential to touch the heart and motivate listeners to action.
Stories can be truthful, or stories can be made up. We’ve all read fiction, heard fairy tales, and certainly have seen a nonprofit represent itself through fictionalized stories. We’ve heard speakers embellish the truth of the message with a story we later find out was untrue.
Simply reciting core messaging and telling stories does not convey authenticity. As an ambassador and advocate, you should reach a point where how you act and behave, and how you speak and listen, flows from within – because you believe it and are living it. You either believe in what you’re doing, or you don't. You can’t fake authenticity.
Your audience may not notice the lack of authenticity at first, but over time there will be clues. In announcements made on the web site, in the volunteer experience, in marketing and promotional materials, you may see hints that something has changed, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. This is your organization's voice – the touch points that appeal to our ears, eyes and minds – and it must be as carefully guarded as spoken words.
The truth of authenticity is always revealed in the spoken expression of an ambassador for their cause. The written word gives the author the luxury of review. Speaking engagements must be designed and planned, and allow minimal opportunities for off-the-cuff remarks.
Those in positions of authority and leadership have a responsibility to their cause and their constituents. The way we think is shown by our actions; our words express what is in our heart. Action reveals thoughts and words reflect the heart – what we believe and what motivates us. Authenticity is eventually revealed through words and actions.
The Heart and Mind of an Ambassador
You believe that your cause has the power to change the world. You believe that the core message points are true and speak them from the heart, because your mind has acknowledged that they are true.
You've become an ambassador – living the cause with conviction of character – when your words flow from believing in the purpose and values that define your organization.
You've moved from being a follower to a believer that will live and give sacrificially.
This Is Who We Are
We are all ambassadors. As an ambassador, you can role-play or you can live with purpose.
If you are involved with a nonprofit representing a cause that matters, then you are an ambassador. Since you are an ambassador, it’s your duty to represent the cause well, to be aware of your role, and to be authentic.
So Why Is This a Design Issue?
Consumers are conditioned to think of design as the outer form of an object or a communication piece, when actually the design consists of the thinking and planning that went into the physical form or visual expression of the piece or product. Design governs the user’s interaction and experience with an organization or institution, intentionally or unintentionally. There is no accidental design.
What if you considered designing the principles that govern communication and design strategy for your nonprofit? Have you thought about a deeper foundation than your core messages – a foundation that never changes?
While reading the letter to Mr. Gee it became apparent that the Trustees were echoing some of the principles from the Cause Manifesto. For example:
“…instead of your words promoting and uniting us, they have sometimes embarrassed and divided us.”
In response, the Manifesto states: “Be Positive. We will choose our words well, for they will motivate people to follow, donate, advocate, and believe in our cause.”
One more example:
“It is our mutual understanding that any comments you make or actions you take that detract from our core values and message are not productive, do not serve the University well, and are not acceptable. “
The Cause Manifesto states: “Be Trustworthy. We will seek accountability and transparency, acting and speaking in a manner that is consistent with our values, our character, and our culture.
The Cause Manifesto from “Raise Your Voice” is an effective resource for organizations that seek to work from a set of guiding principles, in setting the tone for its voice and how it communicates through every touch point. Every piece of literature, every communication tool – from its collateral to its web site – will benefit from core principles that guide it toward authenticity.
Likewise, those who are in the role of ambassadors for their organization would benefit from these core principles that help them set the tone in delivering their core message.
It’s imperative that any communication follows core principles that uphold the values of the organization or institution. Those who are in the role of ambassador are obligated to put the cause first, and understand how their words and the communication toolkit are designed to support that cause.
The outcomes from following a set of guiding principles that enable you to speak with one voice – supporting your purpose, character, and culture – create design continuity and a culture of authenticity, accountability, transparency, and trust.