February 26, 2019

How do you structure a growing communications team?

Suzanne Shaw is Director of Communications at the Union of Concerned Scientists and has over three decades of expertise in nonprofit and private sector marketing and communications.

She restructured her communications department with the intention to build in-house capacity, increase efficiency, bridge “channel-silos,” and measure marketing efforts more effectively. Tune in to hear how she did it and get tips for deciding what a nonprofit with a small communications team should take on in-house vs. outsource.


Sarah Durham: Suzanne Shaw has three decades of experience in nonprofit and private sector marketing and communications. Since 2000, she’s led communications efforts for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a national nonprofit that puts rigorous independent science to work to solve our planet’s most pressing problems. From combating global warming and developing sustainable ways to feed, power and transport ourselves, to fighting misinformation and reducing the threat of nuclear war. I’m actually sitting with Suzanne right now today at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Welcome, Suzanne.

Suzanne Shaw: Thank you, happy to be here.

Sarah Durham: Suzanne is a communication strategist, a science communications trainer and author, an expert on crisis communications and message research and framing. At the Union of Concerned Scientists, she oversees issue campaign communications and brand marketing, digital and web engagement strategies, earned and paid media, and publications and collateral development. It’s just a small job.

Suzanne Shaw: Yep, yep.

Sarah Durham: Just a few things to do.

Prior to UCS, Shaw was the director of communications for Project Red, a nonprofit committed to ending hunger in Massachusetts, and she worked in public relations for the tech community. She holds a BA in communications science from the University of Connecticut, and an MA in public relations and advertising from Emerson. Quite a resume. Thank you for hosting me in your fabulous media room at the Union of Concerned Scientists, it’s great to be here.

So, I wanted to talk to you today about your team, because so many nonprofits that I speak with struggle so much to build and grow a communications team, and to think about how to structure that team. And years ago, back in about 2013, you were growing this team, and you were trying to figure out a smart way to do it. So what was going on then, why did you need to restructure?

Suzanne Shaw: When I came here all those years ago, I had a really small, simple team. We had folks that published our reports and we had one person that worked on our website and a couple of media people. And we kind of grew organically over a few years, adding in e-mail strategy, and getting into social media as that evolved, and we got to this point about six years ago where we really felt like we needed to step back and take a look at what we were doing. It felt like our folks were very siloed in their channels, and that we might have some gaps in how we were both thinking about servicing our issue campaigns, which was primarily how we focused it, and we were kind of neglecting, actually, the brand aspects of communications. So, that was sort of what we did, to step back and take a look.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, and it seems like it’s always a challenge in a team that’s been in place for a while, too, to separate out what is the job, or the role, that needs doing, from the person in the job, or the role. Sometimes you have a person who’s particularly good at something, or passionate about something, and they end up digging in deep to a particular area of the work, and you’re kind of supplementing it with other people to try to round things out. Were you using a lot of external freelancers or consultants also at that time?

Suzanne Shaw: Yeah, and we have, we still do, to a degree. But one of the things that we were doing a whole lot of sort of in that 2012 era was farming out anything that had a visual aspect—doing a video, any of our graphics. We had no in house capacity to do that, and it made everything kind of a really heavy lift for us.

And that was definitely something that felt like a pain point. And so that was also something we really wanted to address in this process.

Sarah Durham: Cause you were producing a lot of content, both for campaigns and for the organization itself everyday, right? So you were constantly project managing all kinds of projects with these external people, as well as internal people?

Suzanne Shaw: Absolutely, and we didn’t really have that much project management capacity. We also, I feel like the brand marketing side suffered. So I work really closely with our fundraisers but, you know, they have all these collateral needs and I don’t think we were doing such a hot job of meeting those needs. We also did this sort of, it wasn’t parallel to, I think it directly followed a rebrand, that we had done.

Sarah Durham: So you had 13 or 14 people on staff at the time, and you reached out to a consultant for help. What was the problem you wanted to solve at that point?

Suzanne Shaw: At that point the question was a little bit more narrow. We felt like a very text heavy shop. The Union of Concerned Scientists, what can we do? Well, we write a lot, and my team works really hard with our technical staff to make their work understandable, but it was kind of text heavy. And we wanted to figure out, were we really representing the work in the most effective way from a communication standpoint? So, we brought in a really great consultant, and she not only talked to our staff, did a lot of discussions here internally, but she also did a scan and a lot of interviews with some of the organizations out there that we and she admired. And what we found was everybody out there was struggling with the same thing. And so we had the benefit of kind of learning from what our peers had done well and where they had struggled.

Sarah Durham: I often recommend that organizations try at least once a year if possible to spend a little bit of time really navigating the websites of their peers and partners and organizations they aspire to be like or that they think are communicating well. Not necessarily wearing their own hat, but wearing the hat of the audience, you know. What is it like to be a visitor on this website, or a donor to this organization? It’s actually one of the best ways, I think, to boot strap communications if you’re struggling with an executive director or somebody who doesn’t get it and doesn’t want to invest in communications. When you show them this other organization that everybody admires and says is doing it right how much they’re investing or how they’re thinking differently—that can be super powerful.

So, after you worked with this consultant, you ended up, kind of, restructuring and growing the team pretty significantly. What did that restructuring lead to, how did you go from there?

Suzanne Shaw: Yeah, so, prior to that, we kind of had what I would call channel silos. So we had a publications team who dealt with our print reports, and we had a web team, and we had a e-mail team, and we had a earned media team, and they did not talk as much, share as much, wear each other’s hats enough.

So, we restructured and we created two divisions: a creative content division, and a engagement division which is more of the push. And we put the media team, and our social media and e-mail under that engagement division. And our website, which you could say either way, sits in our creative content division. We brought on, at that point, a multi-media producer. So someone who is both a designer, but a designer plus. And we brought on an additional writer, a multi-purpose writer, for the creative content division. And then we also brought on a data analyst on our marketing team, on our engagement team. So that we were really looking at the impact of all the work that we were doing.

And, our director of engagement has really worked hard to get all those marketing functions really, having a better understanding of how each other works so that they’re supplementing one another. So we’re not falling into the trap of well, how many hits did we get, and that’s our measure of success.

Sarah Durham: So, yeah, I think it’s easy to imagine, or easier to imagine, what someone on a creative content team does, they produce creative content, they write, design, they make videos, etc. But talk us through a little bit what it’s like to be on the engagement team, like what is the job of an engagement person in your shop?

Suzanne Shaw: Well, I think it’s to think holistically about how we’re marketing our issues, our campaigns, as well as the organization as a whole. And that is not a single channel effort, it’s not all about talking to reporters and getting earned media, that’s a piece of it, if what you have is newsworthy, but maybe what you have is maybe not particularly newsworthy. This week we released a report on science at the Department of Interior, and it wasn’t particularly newsworthy, it was actually looking at a lot of things that have been reported in other ways. But nonetheless, we packaged it looking at how science is being undermined, and what are the impacts that that is having. One of our fellows wrote a piece in Scientific American, which became the top post on the online site, which drove a boatload of traffic, and we shared a lot of social media out there with our colleague organizations in the land movement.

We don’t really work on public lands, but we have a stake in how the science is done on endangered species, and a whole range of issues, climate change at the Department of Interior. But this was a real value add to those land organizations and so we didn’t get a whole lot of earned media. I have confidence that it’s gonna get earned media over time, but our initial impact was really quite different from what maybe what I would have considered success 10 years ago.

Sarah Durham: So, it sounds like the skill set of somebody on the engagement team is, what I would imagine to be, a mix of strategy and project management skills. They’re starting by defining the goal for this particular body of work, and then they’re leveraging whatever resources you have, whether it’s a piece of science that you’re releasing, or maybe it’s something that you choose to produce creatively, and then they’re working cross channels to produce it, but also to monitor it and work with the data scientists to track it, and then they report back, is that how that works?

Suzanne Shaw: Yeah, I think that is how that works. And to be honest, we have folks on that team who do have channel expertise. We still have communications officers who primarily deal with the media, we still have people who are really great on social media, we still have people who have expertise on e-mail communications. But they’re just working more hand in glove.

Sarah Durham: And they understand that their job is in service of achieving a specific goal, not in service of leveraging the channel first and foremost.

Suzanne Shaw: Indeed.

Sarah Durham: So, how big is the team now?

Suzanne Shaw: 29 people.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, and in my experience, that is so unusual. I think I can count, maybe on one hand, certainly two, the number of organizations I know that have more than 20 people on a comms team. That’s pretty phenomenal. But you have grown this team, I mean you’ve been at this organization for 18 years now.

What would you, you know if you kind of can go back in time and remember what it was like when you were leading a smaller shop, or as you talk to friends and colleagues in similar jobs, what advice would you give to an organization that might have the resources to have a few people on a comms team, maybe 1 or 3 or 4, what advice would you give them for how to think about what to do in-house, or how to hire in house versus what to outsource?

Suzanne Shaw: That’s a great question, and it’s really pretty dependent on what kind of organization you are. I do think that starting out, I know a lot of people who are kind of one person shops, and that is a tough business, and, you know, they’re both kind of writers and media folks. And I think that’s the place to start, building from there. I think you do need some online skills to bring in next—somebody who can manage your web presence, manage your online presence, manage your e-mail. And in a small organization, one person can do that. At one time one person did do that for us. You’re spread pretty thin. I think you can get away for a while with outsourcing some of the writing you need to do, some of the creative, but there is a lot of efficiency once you get bigger to bringing some of that creative talent in-house.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, I imagine you get the benefit when you bring more people in house of deepening content expertise. People don’t have to be ramped up on the issues because they become experts on the issues. So there’s an efficiency with that and you lose a lot of extra project management time that your team was spending otherwise.

Suzanne Shaw: Yeah, I think the efficiency on the project management time of managing external vendors is the biggest benefit, especially in this quick turnaround age, in this day and age with what’s going on at the federal level, we are doing just a whole lot of rapid response on defending science, and if we had to farm out every visual we did, we would be really slow off the mark.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, I think it’s also worth noting that one of the reasons it makes so much sense for you to build this robust team, is the rapid response nature of timely advocacy work. And in my experience, if an organization is not predominantly an advocacy organization, the need to have deep expertise in media relations can start to shift, because it’s just not as likely they’re gonna be in the news. So I think there is always this question of what is the work in service of. And in this case, your team seems to me to be very much in service of advocacy and that media relations muscle, and that content expertise is so, so critical.

Suzanne Shaw: Yeah, I would say the one other really important thing is empowering other people within the organization to become effective communicators. I think we all, in communications, struggle with quality control, and control. And we have to be able to let go if we want to be truly effective. And that doesn’t mean you don’t train people well, you don’t role play, you don’t give them the support, but you have to empower people to become, you know, we have a lot of experts, to become bloggers, to do interviews without being monitored, to do all kinds of communications tasks that just a few years ago, you might have held more tightly.

Sarah Durham: Right, so you’ve developed your own speakers bureau, and part of what your team does is build the capacity of other people to do that, so that in a rapid response world, you can put a lot of people, theoretically, on the phone with a journalist, or in front of the camera.

Suzanne Shaw: Absolutely, or they’re out there monitoring their issue, scientists monitoring their issue and tweeting about it.

Sarah Durham: So, are there any best practices you’d recommend for how to train your team, or how to deepen that bench of your team’s ability to speak effectively on behalf of the organization?

Suzanne Shaw: Well, we always run people through public speaking trainings. We train people on blogging, we train people on the norms in social media. I think it’s just really helpful to train and then to monitor, not in a big brother/big sister kind of way, but in a helpful way, and give feedback, and I think that helps people get more comfortable and feel more confident in what they’re doing, and to also avoid missteps.

Sarah Durham: Right. So you’re coaching and providing resources and really becoming an internal training institute for your organization.

Suzanne Shaw: Yeah, absolutely.

Sarah Durham: In smaller organizations, I’ve seen that done very effectively, too, it’s just more of it is outsourced, you know. It takes the executive director or the one person communications person to get the budget for the external media and relations training team, or something like that.

Suzanne Shaw: Absolutely, and we do use external folks all the time, as well. We are supplementing, bringing in people to up our game, because we don’t know it all.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, it’s a great way to infuse new perspectives at some points. Great, Suzanne Shaw, thank you for joining me.

Suzanne Shaw: Thank you.