AMA November Signature Series Luncheon: Ginger Jefferson presents Together We Can: Enhancing Cooperation and Prosperity in Birmingham
Ginger Jefferson is the director of marketing and communications for the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, where she has developed a keen understanding of the barriers facing a bi-county organization. For background, the foundation’s vision is for a just, prosperous and unified region where every person is empowered to reach their full potential. In pursuing this mission, Jefferson and her team work to ignite passion for transformation through various initiatives that target systemic issues facing our region.
But how do you achieve a goal that audacious? Where do you begin?
The foundation has championed these issues through a variety of projects over the years. Through her involvement with these initiatives, Jefferson has learned a project’s success is largely tied to intentional and effective communication and marketing.
“To take on these bigger issues, you have to have a message,” explained Jefferson. More than that, you have to communicate and market that message well.
To illustrate this, Jefferson walked us through three examples of projects in which communication has played a key role: the Violence Reduction Initiative, Together We Prosper and Building (it) Together.
Violence Reduction Initiative
Upon first joining the Community Foundation, Jefferson became involved with the Violence Reduction Initiative, a project aimed at addressing the growing number of homicides and violent crimes reported in our city.
For a city the size of Birmingham, the average annual number of homicides was 16. In 2015, Birmingham reported 100 homicides. The statistics were staggering—Birmingham was ranked nationally as one of the top 10 cities with the highest homicide rate.
The Violence Reduction Initiative sought to reduce these numbers by focusing on deterrent rather than solely on enforcement. The plan was far from simple, but by partnering with law enforcement and through social outreach, the Community Foundation sought to keep at-risk members of the community safe, alive and out of prison, keeping both offenders and the community safe.
Overall, the campaign certainly had some wins. However, in retrospect, Jefferson is able to identify a weakness that hindered the initiatives effectiveness: the project’s communication and messaging, or lack thereof.
Early in the campaign, the team was discouraged from employing any kind of proactive media strategy, messaging or community engagement. The project was complicated, which made messaging complicated, so the proposed solution was to simply avoid messaging. However, this resulted in a lack of coordination between public-facing figures and a great deal of social media push-back, which soon trickled into mainstream media. Before long, the campaign was facing a huge barrier to overcome both in the media and in the court of public opinion.
This, along with some political changes, prompted a shift in strategy, and the Community Foundation chose to partner with a PR firm to coordinate communications efforts and implement a proactive strategy.
The new game plan focused on education, community engagement and storytelling. They hosted a series of Victory Over Violence tours and events, which facilitated opportunities for the community to talk with and interact with law enforcement. They produced videos and began telling the stories of the lives being impacted through the Violence Reduction Initiative. People involved began to speak out and share their perspectives, humanizing the problems Birmingham was facing.
As you, fellow marketers, can imagine, these efforts worked! The program certainly has not solved the problem, as systemic issues like this take time, patience and dedication. However, the intentional messaging proved a valuable resource for the campaign.
Before moving on to the next initiative, Jefferson was careful to point out that this proved to be the most challenging project she’s worked on from a communications standpoint in her career. The Violence Reduction Initiative required careful consideration for how to tell a story both accurately and authentically without exploiting the victims or the survivors involved. And Jefferson was quick to note that she hasn’t necessarily found the answer but struggling with the question was and remains critically important, particularly for projects of this nature.
Regional Cooperation: Together We Prosper
The next initiative Jefferson discussed was a regional cooperation project looking to improve collaboration and partnership among Jefferson County’s 35 different municipalities.
Research and analysis performed by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama revealed our area as the most fragmented metropolitan region in the Southeast, a problem that affects economic growth, job growth and more. The study showed that Birmingham, as a city, was effectively moving backward.
After gathering the facts and looking to other cities that have overcome similar fragmentation, the Community Foundation put together a leadership team to steer the project. And, having learned from their experience with the Violence Reduction Initiative, one of the first orders of business was hiring a PR firm to help with proactive messaging.
The foundation chose to partner with Direct Communications, an organization with a wealth of grassroots advocacy campaign experience and with a broad network of contacts. Together, they began to develop a brand for the initiative and eventually settled on “Together We Prosper.”
With an established brand, they began to engage the community through social media, individual meetings and presentations. The team gave 45 presentations, reaching more than 2,000 people, in just over a year.
The Community Foundation worked diligently to understand the different points of view involved across all stakeholders and decided the best approach would be to lead from behind. They developed a strategy that incorporated two-sided communication, first explaining to the community the challenge they were facing and then asking how these stakeholders would recommend achieving this change.
As the project progressed, Jefferson and her team encountered an interesting obstacle. While the level of awareness and understanding was vastly improved from that of the Violence Reduction Initiative, Together We Prosper faced an entirely different challenge. The initiative involved a broad range of audiences, each of whom received messaging differently, creating the need for particularly nuanced communications.
It became important not only to discuss the need for change but to highlight and recognize existing cooperation and success.
What came next was simple: patience. “It’s a baby-step process,” explained Jefferson, “which was challenging for messaging purposes.”
The campaign highlighted the interdependence of the city’s municipalities in order to create momentum for the project, but from there, the success of the initiative remained reliant on a long-term commitment to change, dedication to building trust and slow, incremental success.
Building (it) Together
The final initiative that Jefferson provided as an anecdote for her communications and marketing experience combined many of the lessons she and her team had learned working with the Violence Reduction Initiative and Together We Prosper.
The project aimed to address a systematic problem with the alignment of education and workforce development in Birmingham. Much like previous campaigns, the Community Foundation began by conducting a deep analysis of the problem. After, they selected Markstein, a local agency, to assist with branding, messaging and marketing.
The brand they developed together – Building (it) Together – proved to be an immense strength for the campaign. It was a framework, not an answer, for aligning education and jobs, with the “it” standing for any facet of the issue: school systems, colleges, workforce development, middle management needs, etc.
With a strong brand in place, the Community Foundation began working to convey the message across its key publics, relying on storytelling to facilitate campaign success. Jefferson and her team identified key storytellers to champion the messages. The Building (it) Together initiative dealt with a unique tension between negativity and honesty and awareness. The team had to work to intentionally strike a balance between being a Debbie Downer by being realistic about the problem and being a Pollyanna by overshadowing the reality of the problem with optimism for change.
As with the other initiatives she discussed, Jefferson identified the biggest challenge as continued engagement. With these long-term issues, a communications plan and marketing efforts have to be long-sighted, as even the most effective tactics take years just to yield a tangible impact.
Each of these projects experienced successes and challenges, reinforcing key lessons for Jefferson throughout having to do with the importance of proactive communication, strategic messaging and a well-developed and well-marketed brand. She also identified an important piece of wisdom that rings true across just about any marketing project: know when to seek advice, and when you do, heed the input of your partners, as it is a valuable asset.
Having heard from someone as seasoned and experienced in marketing and communications as Ginger Jefferson, those in attendance were struck by this reminder as well. At AMA, we have the privilege of gleaning wisdom from a variety of marketing professionals. Thanks to their insight, Birmingham’s marketing community can be better prepared—both as individuals and on behalf of the companies and organizations we serve—to take on projects both great and small, even those as audacious as impacting city-wide, systemic issues.
Interested in more marketing insights from successful executives in our community? Check out our next Signature Series Luncheon in January. Visit www.amabirmingham.org for more information. To find out more about the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham and Ginger Jefferson, visit https://www.cfbham.org/.