Connecting Culture and Communications

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What is culture? And how do we define its role in our work of giving voice to good causes?

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of sharing my experience in and perspective on social change communications with my peers at the Puget Sound PRSA Young Professionals meet-up. In case you missed it, I’ve recapped my thoughts here.

At Pyramid I’m a project manager, which means something slightly different at every agency. Here, I do a little bit of everything and a whole lot of keeping things organized. My background is in cultural nonprofits and intercultural communications, at Pyramid I am able to use that experience with health and well-being clients as they work to connect with their diverse audiences.

I’ve found it’s important to cultivate my acquired diversity in order to communicate with the greatest number of audiences. With so much information at our finger tips everyday, there is no excuse for ignorance. It may be daunting to incounter the depths of the web but with curations tools, such as Warble, Google Alerts, NYT Now and more there are many ways to make it manageable.

While difficult to define, culture is easy to feel. It lives at the intersection of environment, tradition, art, language, and history. Culture is often thought of as what a particular group has in common but that is a given, as they are already a group. What defines culture is how they choose to identify themselves apart from other groups. 

"When an Italian laugh arrives, it comes from the belly. A British laugh descends from the brain. An American guffaw comes from the heart and emerges from the mouth. A German laugh starts in the belly and stays there."

Beppe Severgnini, La Bella Figura

My experience has taught me that communications are integral to everything an organization or group does. In fact, it is a foundational element of culture—varied by its type, style, and frequency, among other factors. A sub-form of communication, just as vital to culture, is the idea of story and storytelling. What elevates a story from a message is the element of humanity—that is both its power and its focus. Without humanity in a message, the barrier between the communicator and the audience remains.

Break down those walls and connect with your audience and their culture. Tell a story. Our work in communications is grounded in storytelling, we are helping define and display cultures. That makes our work exciting, and challenging. 

Causes often have limited resources for consultation and/or communication but most organizations see the connection between communication and their audience/donor base. If this is the case for you, too, your most effective move is to distill and enrich your foundational story to connect with audiences. Working on overarching strategy as it relates to your story, you can reach beyond your base and increase your impact.

In order to move audiences toward action, you must customize your message to convey the issues you work on, the impact your organization creates, and most importantly, the humanity of the work—your story. As has been well-documented, empathy can’t be stimulated by numbers alone. While the story of an individual can be quite compelling, in my view it is best to have both statistics and story. As consumers, we face sad situations and statistics each day. A well-crafted story can place statistics within a helpful context that amplifies the message and increases probability of action. Answering our desire for empathetic connection while providing a scale induces feelings of importance and urgency to drive action.

After twenty years focusing on creating, refining and teaching storytelling, Pyramid is seeing this approach spread beyond the cause-oriented space. As brands like Honey Maid and (conversely) the NFL have witnessed the power of stories (sometimes even the power of their own stories rather than their consumer’s) they’ve also become aware of the positive outcomes of working with causes themselves.

Corporations are taking note of the success of cause-oriented work, and embracing “cause-oriented” or “values-oriented” work outside of their traditional pro-bono budgets in the form of contracts, partnerships, and promotions. As access to information increases, and the ability to engage with that information on social media advances, audiences have raised their voices to demand authenticity, altruism, stories, and value from companies. We check GlassDoor to review our potential employers, Yelp to comment on our Pad Thai. That’s one of the biggest trends I’ve seen in the last five years. From heartwarming commercials about modern family and their response to negative feedback, to corporate responsibility programs, to even the B Corp certification (we’re a B Corp!), we’re witnessing a whole new focus on cultural values as consumers and communications strategists.

To stand out in this mix, you must elevate stories that reflect the world around you, and are relevant to your audiences. That means going beyond writing 140 characters or seeking a one-time donation. That means meeting people where they’re at. 

No matter where you work, or what cause you serve, if you keep your focus on the trends of your audiences and how those relate to their values, you can make the connection from their culture to your communications.  

Twitter: @carlymc5
Carly McCarthy has a straightforward, honest approach appreciated by clients and colleagues alike. Curious by nature, she has a passion for learning and believes it should be a lifelong pursuit. When she isn’t at the office, you can often find her playing with her two Dachshunds, Judy and Julie.