Communications and messaging for a special event -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Communications and messaging for a special event

By Jennifer Lindsey

Special events are wonderful opportunities to bring added exposure to Habitat for Humanity and our mission. Indeed, one of the primary purposes of events is to attract attention, raise awareness and bring in new supporters and volunteers. With Habitat’s renewed focus on advocacy, events can also be an opportunity to highlight poverty housing issues locally and globally, and the many ways in which people can make a difference.

But for these goals to be accomplished, you must have a plan. The best way to approach a communications plan for an event is to break it down into three parts: before, during and after.

Before

As soon as you decide to hold a special event, start planning your communications. Depending on the size of the event, it can take several months to prepare all the communications materials and make the appropriate contacts to ensure that your event gets the exposure it deserves and has the impact it should. A communications plan should include: goal, theme, messages, audiences, mechanisms and a timeline. You should also have a special section on corporate sponsor communications.

The goal of the event should have been determined when the event was originally conceived. Why are you holding a special event? This is the first piece of the communications plan because all the communications materials and activities should support that goal. The next thing to determine is the theme. The theme of the event should capture the sentiment of the week, the feeling you want all volunteers, donors, staff, homeowners and the local community to have during the course of the build. The theme will be used on all your volunteer materials, sponsorship information, and media materials. Although Jimmy Carter Work Projects are not typical of the size or scope of most events held around the Habitat world, examples of some recent JCWP themes provide a glimpse into how they can be used to set a mood. JCWP 06’s theme was “building the future … with families, communities and nations.” For JCWP 05, the theme was “bringing vision to life.”

Along with a theme come the general messages. What are the key things people need to know about Habitat for Humanity’s mission, the local community in which the build will take place, housing statistics in the area, and Habitat’s short- and long-term goals in the area? Consistency is the key. By preparing these messages upfront you can ensure that everyone involved in the event will be sharing the same key points in all their meetings, correspondence, and materials. Marketers say that audiences do not remember a message unless they hear it at least seven times. So repeat these same messages in all the event materials.

But who are those audiences? That’s the next item in your communications plan. Target audiences for events can include media, volunteers, the faith community, government officials, partner organizations, local community, potential major donors—anyone that will participate in, benefit from, or can potentially be influenced by your event to support Habitat for Humanity and our mission. Try to avoid listing “general public” as one of your audiences. Even if you want to reach a broad base of people, your efforts will be less successful if you are not able to differentiate different segments of the public. And that is the next part of your communications plan: how to reach your target audiences.

The audiences you are trying to reach will reveal the communications mechanisms and activities you will use for the event. As an example, the media can be both a target audience and a mechanism to reach other audiences. You can reach media through press releases, press conferences, and follow-up calls. (Be sure you have an updated media list before you begin!) Volunteers, donors and other established Habitat friends can be reached via your website or through newsletters.

When listing the materials you’ll need, remember to prepare profiles of all the home partners participating in the event to share with volunteers, media and others. And coordinate with the team handling event logistics on the preparation of banners or house signs.

Corporate partners play a critical role in most special events. It is important to find ways to recognize their partnership prior to and throughout the event while not losing sight of Habitat for Humanity’s mission and message in the process. Developing and agreeing on a communications plan that serves the organization’s goals will set the proper course as new sponsors come on board. But it is always helpful to include a special section in your communications plan on how you will recognize corporate sponsors and what additional materials the resource development team might need in order to bring in additional sponsorship.

Finally, establish a timeline that outlines when each step of the communications plan will be completed and who is responsible for completing it.

During

Communications activities during a special event focus primarily on media handling and covering the event for Habitat materials. Media handling includes registering and greeting media upon their arrival; ensuring they meet and interview homeowners, volunteers, and key Habitat staff; and inviting them to house dedications and opening and closing ceremonies. Depending on the size of the event, the participation of high-profile supporters or volunteers and the number of corporate sponsors, you may also choose to have a press conference to obtain additional media coverage. A press conference needs to be planned at least two weeks prior to the event week.

But don’t just rely on media to capture the highlights of your event. Assign someone to write about the event and interview homeowners and volunteers throughout the week. Have a staff member or freelance photographer onsite throughout the event to get photos for your website, newsletters and brochures, and for the Habitat for Humanity archives. And consider sending press releases and even photos to local media following key milestones during the week. Don’t forget to send photos and stories to the Habitat for Humanity International communications team to add to the exposure of your event throughout the Habitat world!

After

The event is over, the homeowners have their keys, the volunteers have gone home and the banners have been removed. But your job is not over yet. Now is the time to review the media clips to see how well the event was covered, contact key media who attended to thank them for the coverage and offer follow-up interviews, and archive and caption all the photos. You may also want to send round-up articles or newsletters to the volunteers, sponsors and others when the families move into their homes.

If a special event is worth doing, it is worth doing a strategic communications plan that helps ensure its long-lasting impact through effective, consistent and accurate outreach to your key audiences.

Crisis communications for an event

All events – no matter how well planned -- have the potential for something to go wrong. This could be a natural disaster in the area, a medical emergency onsite, a civil disturbance in the city, or a disaster elsewhere in the world that may affect the event participants. Just as you need a plan to promote the event, you must plan ahead on how to handle a potential crisis.

The first step in preparing a crisis communications protocol is to identify a crisis management team. This team should consist of key Habitat staff who will be onsite during the event – local Habitat management, HFHI senior leadership (if relevant), and representatives from event logistics, construction, communications, volunteer management, etc. All crisis management team members must be notified that they are part of this important team well in advance of the event so they understand their roles and work together on the protocols.

The crisis management team should meet at least once before the beginning of the event to discuss and agree on the following: a team meeting point onsite, communications procedures (e.g., phone tree and contact information) to inform all team members if a crisis occurs; a designated spokesperson; and a written protocol of specific actions to take in various eventualities (e.g., who will travel with the injured volunteer to the hospital, who will notify the next of kin, who will decide whether event should go on or be cancelled in the event of global crisis; who will liaise with local police). It is usually a Habitat for Humanity senior representative who serves as the spokesperson, with support and council from the communications representative. All other team members and Habitat staff should be instructed on who needs to be notified within their team and to ensure that the information is shared judiciously so as not to cause panic or further problems.

We all hope that none of these actions will be necessary at any Habitat event. But it is best to be prepared with a designated team that knows its role and can help bring order and calm to the situation.

Jennifer Lindsey is senior director of International and Advocacy Communications at Habitat for Humanity International.