On this episode of Amplify, Elin Barton talks with Macon Phillips, Founder at Starling Strategy.
Macon oversaw online fundraising, organizing and communications for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and founded the White House Office of Digital Strategy, transforming how the President could mobilize Americans. At the State Department, Macon developed digital engagement campaigns in over thirty countries and built a community of over 500,000 young African leaders through the YALI Network. As CARE USA’s Chief Digital Officer, Macon managed the digital infrastructure for the global humanitarian organization, developed applications to digitize program data and created both the policy and capacity to protect the privacy of beneficiaries.
You should be learning from your public engagement strategy as much as you’re informing.
I’m curious about the idea of building communities within, like, the corporate communication world, when you’re communicating out to followers of the corporation or even internally, it can be a real big challenge to do that. It’s different from an influencer, building a community around themselves. You know, building it around a big corporation is very, I imagine, challenging. What have you learned in all your years of doing this?
I think the common language you see in sales is understanding your customer’s pain point. And that’s relevant to organizing. You know, in the case of the State Department, you know, what is the problem the State Department can help solve for the person we want to pay attention to our updates? I think too, too often, it’s just the latter. It’s, you know, what I like to call a more cowbell approach to public engagement, where you just think, well, what if the graphic was more clever? What if I tweeted harder? But ultimately, you should be learning from your public engagement strategy as much as you’re informing. And I think everyone could use a moment to pause and reflect on to what extent their outreach is actually about learning and building that trust.
Can you talk a little bit about the value of Starling coming in as an outside entity, and maybe being able to see issues within a large organization that they can’t see for themselves? Is there something, you know, about being too close to it that really leads to a kind of blindness?
More often than not, when I talk to public engagement communications professionals in these organizations, there’s not a lot of situational awareness for the topics that their target audiences are already consuming.
You know, there’s, it gets back to this idea that you need to empathize with your audience if you’re going to present something that makes sense to them. You know, which is to say, if you’re going after small business owners as a target audience, for example, what are the, you know, current topics that are out there that you can engage on, and then pivot into your own message?
I think there’s a lot of strategizing that happens in a small group that all work for the organization, and then they take it and do it to the public, instead of pausing and saying, “Well, who are people that are already in the space? And what are they doing? And you know, what can we learn from all these other organizations?” That’s like an immediate value that Starling can provide in part because of our relationships and just knowledge of, you know, the advocacy space and the CSR space, but part of it is really looking at like creative processes.
So you’ll have organizations that have a whole video team, and they have a whole graphic design team, and they have a whole communications team that’s writing a lot of great content. And as a vendor, I can see when I’m working on something and not able to use another resource, and I’m able to point out how organizations can actually promote collaboration among vendors that are complementary, rather than see each effort as its own siloed thing that needs its own resource pack.
But ultimately, our clients already have the ideas. You know, it’s about helping them prioritize, be realistic about expectations, be smart about implementation, and honestly stay on top of it. So project management and really driving a rigorous weekly approach, elbow grease, is a big part of it. And that’s another thing that we can provide.