Strategic Communications: A Case Study

In 2009 I was contracted by the Portland, Oregon nonprofit Wisdom of the Elders (WISDOM) to train volunteers in Digital Storytelling for the Discovering Our Story (DOS) project. It was an exciting and visionary project that of course thrilled me to be a part of. Imagine my delight to be invited onto the WISDOM team in order to develop the strategic communications plan along with Rose High Bear and Clark Salisbury under the tutelage of the brilliant Kathleen Pequeno , our consultant for the next several years.

At the start, Kathleen asked us the following:

  1. WHY are we communicating? [Define goals we are attempting to fulfill and within that the ideas and concepts we are addressing]
  2. WHAT are we communicating?  [Define what needs to be said and how our values are communicated]
  3. WHO are we communicating with? [Specifically define target audiences; those who have interest and ability to help us reach our goals, keeping in mind that “everyone” is NOT a target audience]
  4. HOW are we communicating? [Beyond mechanisms used, define how communications look and feel by the attitudes and values we want reinforced]

Answering these questions, though indeed fun, wasn’t easy,  our project being a collaboration of many organizations serving Native Americans representing over 200 tribes, urban and rural, in the Pacific Northwest. We revisited the mission of “cultural preservation” and we decided on the framework of Historical Trauma as a vital part of the oral histories and recordings.


 BACKGROUND ON ISSUE:  [State what you perceive as the problem, your solution, and the steps necessary for resolution.]

We decided our particular issue was one of Native people being both under-represented and misrepresented in the media while also shy to utilize media in order to tell their own stories.

  • PROBLEM– Native people have limited access to and use of technology.
  • WISDOM will cover participant costs for training field, studio and post production.
  • WISDOM will train and mentor Native people in the aspects of multimedia, digital storytelling and distribution
  • Provide opportunities  on 1) Discovering Our Story project 2) DOStv  and 3) community projects through WISDOM Productions
  • Encourage interested individuals towards independent production

Kathleen then asked what we saw as important assets to maintain and issues to address in order to actualize our solutions.

  1. Maintaining active sources of funding
  2. Maintaining and expanding our partnerships
  3. Continuing recruitment of volunteers

We were also asked to look within our own belief systems and biases.  Our beliefs were that some Native Elders may:

  • Be uncomfortable with the idea of video
  • Be inexperienced with media presentation
  • Be challenged to present their story in a focused way
  • Be unwilling to share the darker and more difficult aspects of their life

Acknowledging these beliefs and factoring them into our planning reinforced the sensitivity necessary for our team to conduct themselves in the most respectful manner. We could now look at some of the larger organizational goals we intended to accomplish.

IDENTIFY YOUR AUDIENCES: [Who do you need as allies? Who can support your project goals and who influences their decisions?]



Why are they key? Features to keep in mind
Native American college students and youth They are the ones that are going to learn from us and will be carrying the work forward. They are also the most influential within their peer groups and can best communicate with them. They are eager to learn about their culture. They are adept at learning and using technology; access to technology and training appeals to them; they bring fresh perspectives to the project.
Social Workers in the Native American community They are key within their sphere of influence because they are working for social change. They have influence over those involved in social change. They are usually well educated, skilled communicators and work for social change; they and their organizations have a limited marketing budget or access to technology and media, so help with technology will likely be welcomed.
Native Elders Their stories provide the content of our project and programs; they are influential members within their families and communities. Resiliency, ability to persevere, their stories and their oral history, their spiritual qualities /cultural values; they may be shy about and frustrated with technology; they are not always willing to share their feelings on the issues that impact them.

[Define ‘Why should I care?’ for each of our primary audiences]



Shared values What makes this project relevant?
Students and youth Their appreciation of technology and its value to communicate or support social change, social networking and self-discovery. They want to make videos for their friends; they like being part of a group or movement; they want to belong to something that is perceived as positive; those that into their careers can learn tech skills
Social Workers Invested in social justice; value advocacy + self-empowerment;  appreciative of affordable + innovative solutions. Our project communicates issues of social justice and community development; they may be likely to see the value of using the media to communicate positive images of Native people
 Elders They embody the principles underlying our entire project, their culture is worthy to be shared and informs all that we do. This project amplifies their message; they could contribute towards perceived problems; their stories preserved; promote the  longevity of their communities.

IDENTIFY YOUR MESSAGES: [What are some of the key messages or memes that can convey values, clarify the problem, or suggest a next step?]

Identifying our messages led us to rediscover the origins of WISDOM’s founding by Rose and her late husband, Lakota Elder Grandpa Martin High Bear. Kathleen then challenged us to come up with an elevator pitch.

MESSENGERS: [Who will carry your message?  Who can best break through to your audiences?  Who are the appropriate voices on the issue?]

We were blessed with one such messenger, high school teacher Jim Hanson, who had many Native students. He attended a training at Lewis and Clark College for instruction on how to use our online materials with a presentation by Roger Fernandes. Jim then been instrumental in bringing our materials to wider audience.

Next,  our attention focused on Communication Channels deciding on field productions of individual stories being utilized as TV segments with all video for web-casting. With that a redesign of our website for video and curriculum inclusion, a social media campaign, e-newsletter and promotion of our community events such as the Northwest Indian Storytelling.

COMMUNICATIONS CHANNELS [answer all questions for each channel]

  1. Activities & objectives to attain
  2. Materials to support activities
  3. Timeline for projects
  4. Who will complete each task

As our project continued to develop with streaming content, trainings, workshops, monthly live TV shows and WISDOM Productions assignments; our attention went towards:


  • Specify times to take track progress in completing communications plan
  • Consult with allied communications and technical advisers
  • Determine strengths and weaknesses
  • Identify obstacles
  • Create and implement new approaches for success

We began studying our web analytics and learned that most found our website just by googling “wisdom radio native elder”, most of our traffic being people who’d heard our radio programs. This made sense since they were still airing nationally over Native Voice One. We wanted to keep our radio listeners but also wanted to introduce them to our video content so our website redesign was carefully structured  for WISDOM Radio tab placed nearer to our new content offerings.

Kathleen encouraged establishing a Brain Trust of technology/communications professionals and community stakeholders to review our content. We created many such opportunities including a tedious “click on every link” website vetting  by a small army of AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers. Anything malfunctioning was tracked and quickly corrected and content was redesigned again and again. All through the process we held regular meetings with Kathleen during which we could go deeper into certain subjects or she would provide us feedback on our efforts.


Success was the opportunity to share our Elders’ stories and project findings with the community, have our content be valued for its’ power in the use of storytelling and maybe one day find a larger audience. As we made progress on our strategies we were then contacted by  SAMHSA to begin researching our project as an innovative treatment model for addictions.

At this writing the project is finalizing the third year of recordings with development of the project for broader research and implementation meaning possible variations of Discovering Our Story being being utilized in other communities.


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