Anusha Alikhan on the value of strategic communications

Strategic communications is about reaching the right audience with the right message, says Knight Foundation’s communications director Anusha Alikhan. When done well, it successfully advances the goals of an organization.

It also takes into account any potential challenges and opportunities. Alikhan says that successful communications plans adhere to three basic tenets: “First, be consistent. Second, know your audience. Third, always measure your impact.”

We recently talked with Alikhan to get her advice on how nonprofits and startups can create targeted messages and how they can avoid common stumbling blocks. She also shares how growing up as the daughter of a diplomat helped shape her own view of diverse communities.

Why is it important for Knight Foundation to invest resources in strategic communications?

A.A.: Knight takes a unique approach to communications. Similar to our grant-making, we are not afraid to be bold and try new approaches. We see communications as an important way to advance social change and spread new ideas. Our mission focuses on getting news and information to communities to help strengthen democracy. We use communications as a way to help put the projects we fund into the hands of people so that they can use them to shape their own communities. That means we need to make the public aware of the funding opportunities available through Knight. It also means attracting a wide and diverse community of grantees so that we can constantly surface good ideas and help spread them.

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You spend much of your time shaping messaging and pitching stories about our grantees to journalists. What advice would you give to Knight grantees that are better trying to market themselves?

A.A.: My overall guidance would be that effective media relations still relies on good storytelling—using a compelling narrative to emphasize who or what is going to benefit from your idea. At the same time the opportunities to tell those stories has changed fundamentally. The Internet and social Web has disrupted communications as much as any other field. That means you may not be going after the biggest outlets like The New York Times anymore, but rather you now have the opportunity to tap into a much wider network of specialized news sites, bloggers, social media enthusiasts or publications to help get the word out about your project. Keep in mind that whatever news you put out there isn’t going to go away, so you need to be very clear about your messaging and prepare to respond to feedback—good or bad.

Can you give us an example of grantees that have done this well?

A.A.: Code for America is very good at storytelling. They do a lot of diverse work but do a good job of connecting their initiatives across the board and to their overall mission of engaging people in civic participation. Matter also recognizes communications is important for getting the word out about their initiatives. Whenever they have a milestone, they’ll connect with us to help them think about opportunities. They have also engaged successful public relations efforts beyond their coordination with Knight and do a great job at leveraging their partnerships.

Are there any common mistakes people make?

A.A.: A lot of people don’t plan communications ahead of time; it almost becomes an afterthought, especially when resources are scarce. Being strategic about communications and consistent with messaging from the start is key to having a big impact. You can have a great project but it won’t get far if no one uses or hears about it.  Another area where I see people misstep is that they don’t put a lot of emphasis on social media as a way to get their story out, particularly if they’re not yet well-known. Journalists more and more are looking to social media not only for sources but for story ideas, so make sure you have an active presence. Also, because of the changing media environment personalization has become really essential. Get to know the publications and reporters to target with your story and tap into the right social networks.  And don’t forget to measure your impact!

Before you came to Knight you were at National Parkinson Foundation in Miami and before that at the United Nations in New York. You’ve also practiced law and were a freelance journalist. How has that informed your work at Knight?

A.A.: Each of those places approach communications from a different angle—but I think they also have a lot in common. All are about informing people and contributing to change. It’s just the audiences and goals that vary. Practicing law taught me specific advocacy language and how to fight on behalf of a client, which laid the foundation for my job at the U.N.  There, like at Knight Foundation, we had a unified goal but dealt with a broad range of topics; I worked on issues like peacekeeping, reproductive rights, youth education and women’s rights. I think it prepared me for maneuvering the many projects that Knight is involved with.  At the National Parkinson Foundation, the audience was more specific and there was a large fundraising piece that was important to the overall communications strategy. That taught me to be resourceful. At the same time, my work there introduced me to a very unique community battling a serious disease where, again, the right information made all the difference. Being a freelance journalist also helped put Knight’s work in perspective because a lot of our work centers on understanding how journalists and newsrooms can better inform their communities.

Your father was a diplomat for the World Bank so you grew up all over the world. How did that impact your career?

A.A. I’m Canadian, but I’ve also lived in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh and the United States and my roots are East Indian. I’ve seen countries in chaos and conflict and I’ve seen countries on the path toward economic development. That gave me a unique perspective into understanding and identifying with diverse communities and citizens. I love the idea that Knight helps a variety of communities and socioeconomic groups and that a lot of the ideas we support end up spreading beyond our borders. I also have a tendency to constantly want new experiences and the ability to learn new things and I get to do that on a daily basis here.

What are some of your favorite places that you’ve traveled?

A.A.: The main things I look for in a good travel experience are beauty, delicious food and the ability to learn. Turkey is definitely up there because it has all of those things and I love its Mediterranean coast. And Istanbul with its tall minarets and modern cafes is an interesting meeting of the old and the new. It’s a huge, diverse city, and it reflects Turkey’s unique democracy more than anywhere else. I also recently went to Costa Rica and really appreciated the intensity of walking through lush rainforests and being completely immersed in nature; that stark contrast from everyday city life continues to remind me that there’s so much more to see and do!   

By Elizabeth R. Miller, communications associate at Knight Foundation