How do we win against weaponized chaos? Communicating in the age of fake news, Russian bots, and eroding faith in democratic institutions.

Photo by Gael Varoquaux via / CC BY 2.0

On a cold day in November, David Domke, professor and chair in the Department of Communications at the University of Washington, made a prediction for a gathering of Brainerd Foundation grantees, trustees, staff, advisors, and colleague funders, that no one in the room — including me — was surprised to hear. He said, "The reason the Democrats won two months ago on healthcare is because they made people feel it. And the reason they're about to lose on taxes is because the public hasn't been made to feel what those cuts are all about."

Domke made a compelling argument to our room full of savvy nonprofit leaders that to connect with people across ideological lines, we need to "speak American," to connect with that set of principles and ideas that connect all people who self-identify with the American project — with the ideas of democracy and freedom, liberty and opportunity.

Then, he worked his way through one compelling example after another, reminding us that to inspire people to take a stand for progressive policy, our messaging needs the following four ingredients. (Hint: These ingredients were on display with progressive messaging for the healthcare debate. Not so much for the tax debate.)

1. We need a moral vision, a clear sense of right and wrong.

The research he studies in his work bears this out, says Domke. People will respect the clear moral vision, even if they think it's wrong. He clarified that this is especially true when one's moral vision is portrayed as "Here's where I stand," rather than "I'm better than you."

2. We need to invoke national identity, our core American values.

Domke reminded us that trust, integrity, liberty, and democracy are ideals that Americans have fought and died for. Across political lines, Americans believe that these core values make us special. He acknowledged the progressive movement's discomfort with American exceptionalism, but insisted that this is pure capital for us to invoke — "In an inclusive, family-building, i pluribus unum kind of way," he added, "not in a 'we're going to run you over' kind of way."

3. We need to make things very personal.

When we talk about progressive values that are under attack, we need to demonstrate how personal they are, says Domke. Healthcare, clean air, global climate change, immigration. "These are personal things, not abstract phenomena. These are the realities of the lives that real people live and they want to feel that we get it, that we are suffering with them."

4. We have to be determined and visible.

Sharing examples from the religious right's ability to persist with its agenda over the past two decades, Domke insisted, "It no longer matters what we think and feel. What matters is…that we show that we are not going away. We are going to show up tomorrow and the next day."

Reflecting on Domke's advice later, one participant told the group, "We know this stuff. This is nothing new. But we don't do it." The response? Nods all around. This reminded me of something a mentor told me years ago. She said that life throws the same lessons at us time and again, and we just get to keep learning them over and over, until we get it.

The team at Resource Media
Resource Media's team of nonprofit communications whiz kids. Photo courtesy of Resource Media.

One year into the current — very strange — political reality, and inspired by Domke's recommendations, my colleagues and I asked the experts at Resource Media to share their advice for nonprofit communicators in this time of the "new normal." Resource Media's day-to-day bread and butter is helping nonprofits anchor their stories in values, build bridges, mobilize supporters, and drive conversations in pursuit of sustainability, health, equity, and justice. Reflecting this theme of returning to lessons we may have learned in the past, their recommendations that follow are not silver bullets, but rather rock solid reminders of the lessons we must continue to reinforce.

Imagine a better future, and show the path to it.

Ben Long, Senior Program Director

"Twitter allows the president to dominate the public narrative worldwide. Laced with vulgarity, sexism, racism, and authoritarianism, Trump tweets are designed for shock value. But these tweets are not designed merely to spread disinformation and distraction — they are intended to damage the credibility of anyone who is not Trump, and undermine institutions that have the authority to check his. They define the national narrative on Trump's terms: the press, "liberals," and outsiders are his villains; "unheard Americans" are the victims; Trump is the sole hero.

"The antidote to this poison may seem mundane, but it is simple: Do not get swept away in the tide of Trump's chaos or his personal quirks and foibles. Ignore speculation and rumor. Instead, hold him accountable to the policies he advances or ruins, and the outcomes those policies will have on real Americans.

"But keep in mind, it's not enough to be Anti-Trump. Our job is to imagine a better future and show the path to it."

Remember your target audience.

Nicole Lampe, Vice President

"To me, all Trump's talk about fake news doesn't feel like it's persuading the progressive base, but we do know that trust in the media is down generally as people are recognizing the polarization and politicization of news. In light of that, I think the two most important things advocates can do are first, to pay attention to where your target audience is getting its news and how your issues are being framed there, so you can meet people where they are. And then, to center your communications on the voices and stories of people your audience can relate to or identify with."

Focus on frontline communities.

Sian Wu, Senior Program Director

"When I think of 'eroding faith in democratic institutions,' I think, there are some folks who never had faith in these institutions and for them, it's been all about local community.

"In this era of quantifying clicks and eyeballs, and being louder, faster, and more prolific than the opposition, it's important to remember what is more difficult to measure — the depth of one's reach and the hurdles you're leaping over in order to communicate with populations that have been largely ignored by mainstream and social media. These frontline communities can enact enormous change and are often supportive of environmental issues. The key is to structure programs that make sense to specific cultures and economic situations. And that takes relationships, representation, and relevance — in your outreach strategy, communications, and issues."

Take your communications off-line and talk to real people.

Cat Lazaroff, Managing Program Director

"Now, more than ever, there's no substitute for meeting face-to-face. Lots of research tells us that facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language are just as important in getting your point across as the actual words you use — perhaps even more so. That makes any platform that focuses on written language a very poor option for discussing issues that may carry emotional weight, or where folks may have already formed opinions. In late 2017, new research specifically concluded that Facebook is a terrible place to hold a debate, as the platform tends to increase disagreements and acrimony, rather than reducing them. So, whenever you can, take communications off-line and talk in person. Video calls can be a good substitute, but if you really want to change hearts and minds, meet people in-person and shake their hands."

Think beyond today's crisis and develop your capacity for the future.

Refugio Mata, Program Director

"I'm encouraging the groups I work with to approach 2018 by doubling down on thinking long term. I'm asking them, what are the investment strategies that need to be looked at now, so that we can finally address gaps in messaging and messengers that are critical to the success of the campaigns we work on day-in and day-out? What are the opportunities for developing capacity? And then I'm encouraging them to go deeper and ask how can you build capacity in a way that is collaborative, and not just one-sided and transactional?"

Remember, when you wrestle with pigs…

Amy Frykman, Vice President

"What do you do when blatant lies and self-selected propaganda bubbles appear to be the new normal? Acknowledge that these are strange times, but the basics of using communications as a strategy to move policy and practice haven't changed all that much — though the venues in which we're working certainly have. On a practical level, we're working with advocates across the country to dig into city and state work and doing as much as possible to keep things relevant to people's lives.

"I find myself often in the position of urging partners to not get sucked into the 'Trump vortex.' It's tempting to weigh in with furious outrage with each new revelation coming out of D.C. But, to what end? Will that move you closer to your goals? It always pays to take care when trying to capitalize on a news cycle revolving around the president. Remember, when you wrestle with pigs, you will get dirty. My advice? Ignore the side show and seek out real wins wherever possible. And to those who are trying to move the Trump Administration, I say, Godspeed and good luck."

From Domke's admonishment to focus on values and get personal, to Resource Median's reminder to connect with real Americans and avoid mud-slinging, we are tasked with bringing the tried and true best practices of communications into the chaotic present. May you find the strength to hold true to your values and connect with people of all stripes in this rough and tumble time.