Behind the Headlines With Connie Partoyan
The right message and messenger will motivate your audience and ensure you are well-received, says Connie Partoyan, chief executive officer of Direct Impact.
In this interview, Connie discusses how the way audiences consume news is changing, why spending time on message development is important and why a dedicated support network is valuable.
You were recently named chief executive officer of Direct Impact. What are you most excited for in your new role?
I am excited about being part of an evolving industry where local influence is growing in importance. I am also excited to lead a team of extremely talented individuals and to work with some of the most respected brands in America.
I came to D.C. right out of college to work on the Hill; that was 25 years ago. A lot has changed in that time, especially in how companies, associations and organizations approach public affairs and government affairs. It is a lot more integrated, targeted and localized.
Our firm has been around for 30 years and has been at the forefront of helping the world change and adapt. Our history is grounded in public affairs – helping to influence some of the most challenging public policy debates in the country.
But we have expanded beyond that to take the political grassroots model and apply it to brand, public education and influencer engagement campaigns for top Fortune 50 companies – all focused outside of Washington, D.C. and in local communities.
How has the public affairs industry changed over the years? What are organizations doing differently? What has stayed the same?
The two most dramatic changes are the 24/7 news cycle and technology growth. Given the news cycle, stories can have a longer life and be amplified in more places. It sometimes requires a different strategy in terms of how you respond, when and how you correct misinformation, when and how you punch back and which medium to choose as your platform. Across the board, public affairs requires a much more sophisticated, integrated approach.
Yet despite significant change, some of the fundamentals have stayed the same. First and foremost, messages still matter. How you convey a point of view matters – and that includes everything from the language you use to your facial expressions. Also, local news continues to be relevant.
According to a recent Pew Research Center study, across three disparate metro areas in the U.S., nearly nine in 10 residents follow local news closely – and about half do so very closely. Despite what is happening in Washington, D.C., people still make up their minds locally, and politicians know that. Companies recognize that, too.
How do you develop a communication strategy that inspires action?
It starts with the right message. We spend a considerable amount of time on message development to understand what will motivate an individual or a group to take action. It needs to be a message that not only resonates with people but also moves them to take action. People need to grasp what’s in it for them, how it will affect their family or how it will impact their job. It’s this level of personal relevance that truly inspires action.
In addition to having the right message, you need the right messenger. For example, we are doing work with the Mattel Children’s Foundation, helping to introduce their Speedometry Curriculum to education influencers in key markets around the country.
We know that education is a hyper-local issue, so a big part of our strategy is to help them identify local ambassadors like teachers, PTA members, local business leaders in STEM fields and school administrators who understand the value of STEM education and can serve as validators for the program and the benefits it provides to elementary school children. Across the board, in taking the time to find the right messenger, messages are far better received.
What are some of the ways organizations can improve their grassroots outreach?
Quite simply, focus on the process – educate, engage and nurture.
Our clients often come to us because they have a problem and usually it is an issue or a challenge that has a direct impact on their bottom line. Rarely do we have clients who want to build an army of advocates to have ready for the next challenge or issue fight. In the end, a developed network with dedicated supporters is always the strongest.
For organizations trying to bolster their grassroots network, it’s important to use all of the assets available – employees, vendors/suppliers, retirees, community groups, alumni and any other stakeholder with a horse in the race. When it’s momentum you’re after, harnessing the most powerful, diverse network possible is the best strategy.
Finally, start small. Ask someone to sign an op-ed, to send a letter to his or her member of Congress or to attend a local event. Chances are if someone engages once, he or she will come back, so long as you focus on the process above and continue to engage and nurture.
How do you integrate a traditional outreach approach with digital?
Both traditional grassroots engagement and digital grassroots engagement are predicated on answering the same question: How do we find the right audiences through the communications platforms that will move them to action?
While traditional tactics such as letter-writing campaigns or placing op-eds in a local paper remain important tools, you can now achieve even greater amplification of your message through social media.
At DI, we no longer view engagement through an online or offline lens, but merely determine where and how we can reach our key audiences and move them to action. Technology makes it much easier to target audiences and keep people engaged.
What is the most important lesson about communication you’ve learned throughout your career?
Frankly, I never thought I would go into communications. I was a business major and politics minor. While working as a staff assistant in the office of Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA), I was asked if I wanted to work in the press office so I decided to give it a try. Obviously, I really enjoyed it!
A lot of communication is common sense and thinking through how to take complicated issues and make them relevant and easy to understand. This was true in the press office and it’s true for every campaign I have worked on ever since.
My key lessons learned are to stay on message, be consistent and to define the issue instead of letting others do it for you.
Rapid Fire Round
1. I always thought I’d be…a lawyer.
2. My dream vacation would be…a month in Hawaii with my family.
3. If I won the lottery, I would…start a foundation – most likely around education (and buy a Gulf Stream).
4. The thing that gets me up in the morning is…our family dog Harper. I am the morning dog walker. But I also love my job.
5. My hobbies outside of work include…travel, my nine-year-old son, golf and spending time with friends and family.
6. My biggest pet peeve is…people who are not on time.
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