Helping Clients Tell Stories that Stick

In nearly 25 years of helping clients spread their messages, I’ve heard a lot of incredible successes and passionate pleas for support and empathy. Sometimes, it can be impossible to resist getting swept away in the energy and excitement of the client’s mission – but no matter how enthusiastic you may become about your client’s story, it’s always important to remember that it’s truly his or hers to tell.

This slightly thorny truth is even sharper today, since the internet has extended the longevity of a piece by making it easy to find even years from publication. One of the first Google results for my name is usually a profile of my architectural drawings in the New York Times… from February 1990!

When it comes to clients, this new permanence – making ancient news immediately available – can cause extra stickiness when dealing with bad press, an ill-advised quote or a lackluster interview. Accordingly, in helping clients tell their stories, it becomes paramount to make sure that they project their personal identity, in addition to their organization’s brand and mission – so that in 25 years, when someone asks their robot assistant to Google the organization, what comes up is a document of passion and personality, not simply a rote list of talking points.Remember to keep a little personality in your nonprofit's storytelling!

One client of ours, many years back, inadvertently underscored the importance of injecting a little personality into a presentation. This nonprofit leader worked primarily with elders. She was passionate and dedicated 100% of her talents to her work, which was clear to everyone who met her. When it came to public speaking, though, she spoke stiffly and kept to her notecards, effectively stifling all the passion and fire she projected in person-to-person interactions.

With an organization like hers, filled with wonderfully touching moments, all funders, donors, families and elected officials would need in order to instantly align to her cause was a well-told, publicly shared story. Instead, each speaking engagement was a lost opportunity, a vacuum of boredom and polite applause where there should have been rapt attention and standing ovations. Something had to change.

We needed to find the key to opening up her usual boundless enthusiasm instead of having it clamped down when she donned her business hat.

We discovered that each evening over dinner, she would share the highs and the lows of her day with her children. Her motivation was to inspire them to do good in the world, and she readily shared her stories with energy and zest. Having heard this, we suggested that she paper-clip reminder photos of her children to the top of her next speech. From then on, she was a firebrand at the podium.

That was a crucial lesson for us to learn as a young firm. Most PR professionals will tell you their job is to tell clients’ stories. To be sure, it is – but when a client can be his or her own best advocate, it’s also our job to step out of the way and facilitate the client’s own storytelling. By helping our client project her innate passion and personality while speaking publicly, her advocacy was twice as convincing. And, unlike another dry press release, her testimony will remain vital as long as it’s search-indexed.

Cultivating an “Awareness of Now” in 2014

More so than any year before, 2013 truly unfolded moment by moment.

2013 was the year of newsjacking – clever marketers were seizing Twitter opportunities left and right, from the Oreo Super Bowl blackout to DiGiorno’s Sound of Music moment of livetweeting glory:


DiGiorno live tweets The Sound of Music

It was also the year of Snapchat, ephemeral pictures and videos that disappear after just a few seconds, Vine’s seven-second clips, and Instagram’s answer to both apps. Even though taking a picture might make you less likely to remember the event or photograph you’re witnessing, people, especially young people, spent most of this year pointing their smartphones in front of them and snapping away. But even beyond the question of medium, storytelling in the past year leaned heavily on the ever-increasing rate of change in our world. One of my favorite examples was IBM’s “World’s Smallest Movie” spot – in which IBM’s scientists manipulated their revolutionary storage technology to animate a story about a boy named Adam and his pet atom using tiny carbon molecules.

The spot works because it connects the idea of people to an impersonal-seeming and oblique technology, while simultaneously illustrating just how incredible and world-changing the research behind the product is. In other words, telling your organization’s story is no longer a question of simple intent, copy and placement. The timeliness factor has become the main factor. This year, cultivating an “awareness of now” became the best thing a marketer can do.

Plenty of tools exist to help you focus on the topics and conversations that are most important to your industry, your clients or your donors – and to find the people who are engaging in them. Twitter is, of course, the best tool for keeping tabs on an industry, but the still-kicking Google Alert, RSS feeds, mention and a well-populated list of bloggers are all good places to start.

Someone, somewhere is having the conversation you want to join. Whether by being topical and funny on Twitter or by providing your expertise to a journalist precisely when they need it for their next story, the best way to get your organization’s voice into that conversation is to be exactly on time. In 2014, an awareness of now will make sure that when the moment comes, you’ll be ready, and – if you’re savvy and timely – you’ll be able to make it your moment.

Summer Nonprofit Management: Creativity for Year-Round Sunshine

While in the offices of a client this past winter, I came across a cluster of laughing staff members; lemonade and saltwater taffy were on the table. They were chuckling at an album of themselves bedecked in summer fashion – Nantucket reds and Hawaiian shirts – at a barbecue the previous July. Our client had decided to wait until the dark days of February to share the photos, hoping that they might rekindle the happy memories of summer silliness. In the brainstorming session that followed, I noticed a certain sunniness to the team members’ enthusiasm, and wondered if the photos had perhaps brightened the midwinter mood.

Summer’s trappings of relaxation and fresh starts can create new energy. Leveraging summer’s predisposition for sunny events and team outings to set an energetic tone for the coming year can be a boon to nonprofits. To some, that means volunteer appreciation and team activities, and to others it means taking a chance on something unusual.

A student I advised last year implemented a zero-based programming approach to better regulate her communications with stakeholders and to reassess what research she truly needed. She scrapped her existing strategy and started from scratch—building her programs item by item and quantifying and qualifying each element. She found that with a different perspective and creativity, she was able to produce more zing for less money.


To encourage her team to buy into the new programming approach, she built a six-month reviewinto the restructure – immediately after a lighthearted summer/winter pie-baking contest in both cases – promising to go back to the old way if the zero-base approach couldn’t be reenergized in January. The memories and creativity of the good-natured baking competition reminded her team of the generative and inventive atmosphere they established when they first worked through zero-based building that previous summer.

Like the client who waited until February to bring back the memories of his team at the agency’s summer cookout, this student saw remarkable dividends from her new approach – despite the initial reluctance by her team to change the status quo. Making the process fun with a mixture of brainstorming, sweet treats and pie-in-the-sky ideas that inspired much laughter encouraged the team to generate a comprehensive program that they believed in and totally owned. And it worked – the staff is now gung-ho and even more energized than before.

Nonprofits are always charging ahead. The reason nonprofit-oriented folks can take on such daunting challenges with success is that they neither take no for an answer nor think to rest until they have reached the top of the mountain. Both my student and that client are cut from this cloth. They also figured out something important: changing your approach and saving some summer for the winter can pay off in a big way without slowing you down. In those winter months, routine and darkness might press in, so bringing back the creativity of summer can totally invigorate a team. Frankly, I’ve never encountered a person or nonprofit to be averse to warmth and change.

Marketing like the Big Guys for Small Businesses and Nonprofits: Announcing Under3PR

Sometimes that “do-it-yourself” approach can only get you so far. While small-budgeted organizations fueled by passion and talent can be extremely effective, a roadblock might appear that necessitates outside expertise.

Under3PR, a collaborative service from Winkleman Company and Coa Design, was inspired by the interests and challenges posed by my students throughout nearly two decades of teaching at Columbia University’s Institute for Not-for-Profit Management, Mailman School of Public Health, United Jewish Appeal, and Fordham University’s Center for Nonprofit Leaders. Each student’s organization shared the acute need for quick, strategic and affordable guidance to targeted challenges.

Through public relations, marketing and graphic design, Under3PR addresses the most common issues facing small nonprofits and businesses. Projects range from drawing media attention for a program, branding and social media management to crisis response and counsel on leadership continuity – and everywhere in-between. Like many of my students’ organizations, prospective clients must have revenues under $3 million and a short-term project that fits within Under3PR’s targeted parameters.

Our test drive for Under3PR came to us in the form of Heart Gallery NYC. A small nonprofit, Heart Gallery NYC uses the artistic talents of renowned photographers to raise the visibility and public awareness of children in foster care seeking their “forever families” – all on an annual budget of under $500,000. Laurie Sherman Graff, Founder and Executive Director, needed help drawing coverage for a press conference but had limited funds. Heart Gallery NYC was a perfect opportunity for Under3PR – small budget, acute project, good cause – so we set about being perfect for it.

Our PR expertise packed Laurie's press conference with reporters and photographers.

Our PR expertise packed Laurie’s press conference with reporters and photographers.


“The media coverage was awesome, and the professionalism of the Winkleman Company team was so apparent and appreciated! I look forward to continuing to work together on future events,” Laurie wrote in an email to us the day after the conference. As Under3PR, our team brought together the right television and traditional media to help tell these children’s incredible stories to a broad, multilingual audience of potential families.

Working on a project basis can be the right approach, especially when a challenge may be outside the scope of small business or nonprofit managers who is already too stretched for the cause/goal that drives them.

When a small organization comes up against a roadblock, it can’t afford to slow down. Under3PR will help you navigate and resolve those roadblocks.

Please see our full menu of Under3PR offerings or call Katherine at 646-234-8077 to discover what we can do for your business.