Dean Russell: Choose your words carefully if you want to engage communities online

The role of charity communications is shifting from campaigns towards facilitation, says our columnist

Dean Russell
Dean Russell

The Canadian songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie once said that language and culture were inseparable. Language, she said, was "a tool that is used to explore and experience our cultures".

Her views seem just as relevant for charities operating in today's digitally influenced culture. In less than a decade, the language of the web has become an integral part of our culture. Talking about 'tweets', 'likes' and 'streaming' no longer brings looks of bewilderment. Yet they are all still relatively new concepts.

This shows how quickly our world is changing and that whatever your organisation does, there will always be a need to keep up.

One of the most visible shifts is the way communities have changed. They are no longer limited by geography; they exist virtually across platforms such as Facebook, where people gather to share views, interests and common experiences.

This has created a complex challenge: the very act of charity emerged as a way of helping others most in need within a geographical area. Those that provided this help gained respect and awareness, and many of today's major charities grew this way.

But charities have had to work harder to gain recognition as these communities have become increasingly virtual and fragmented.

This change has had positive effects too. It has, for instance, created a more level playing field where small, innovative charities are able to generate greater recognition than larger ones by running smart campaigns. This, in turn, has triggered a growth in the size of many online communities.

The charity Beatbullying is a good example of what can be achieved: through a highly visible, sustained approach to campaigning, it has been able to blur the lines between cause and community, and consequently people have become more aware of it.

Remember - traditional campaigns have an end point, but communities do not. To ensure that their causes continue to attract support, charities need to shift the emphasis of their communications strategies away from running traditional campaigns and towards creating more actively engaged communities. Language and a shared culture are key ways of achieving this.

This shift from campaigning to engagement is where charity communications has changed the most. If charities want to engage supporters, they need to speak to them with a more authentic voice than was necessary only five years ago.

So the role of charity communicators is shifting from campaigns towards facilitation. Supporters now have to feel they own the charity brand and can help it evolve. This new approach is poles apart from the traditional corporate culture, where the focus of activity was determined internally.

It's much more about collaboration now: charities and communities decide together what to do.

The third sector has some good examples of this. For instance, compare the Twitter feeds of @DogsTrust and @SavetheChildren. Both are excellent examples of communication and fulfil the same purpose of gaining support, yet have clear differences in language and tone. Both provide a tangible sense of the brand culture.

It's the differences in charities that allow them to engage differently. If you can establish a brand culture that fits your organisation's purposes and is attractive to like-minded individuals, then you have a powerful campaigning tool.

This is why the language an organisation uses online is so important because now, more than ever, every word you say can say a lot more about you than you might think.

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