Hosted by The Communications Network, ComNet is an annual conference for purpose-driven communications and design people. You know the type. Folks like us! Nonprofit, foundation and agency professionals who are motivated to make an impact through storytelling.
This year’s ComNet was hosted in September in Atlanta. I got the opportunity to wear my coolest blazer and rep Barefoot PR alongside our Chief Purpose Officer Sarah Hogan. Unsurprisingly, it rocked. ComNet23 was one of those magical moments where I got to learn from and connect with purpose-driven communications professionals from all over the country. I’m still buzzing with inspiration from all the insights I learned and LinkedIn connections I made.
After lots of journaling and reflection, I’m excited to share some of the key takeaways from our time at ComNet23. In addition to informing our work in the year ahead, these insights are valuable lessons that can shape strategies for many of the nonprofit, foundation and purpose-driven leaders in our Barefoot community.
Here’s what we learned:
We’re all gonna be OK with AI
ComNet23 opened with a keynote on artificial intelligence (AI). Easing our worried minds was Aimee Rinehart (Associated Press) and Mikhael Simmonds (Center for Community Media at CUNY) who provided valuable insight on the new technology that’s shaking the industry and scaring my parents.
The keynote taught us the increasing importance of Language Learning Models (LLMs). LLMs are the foundational ideas, concepts and knowledge that AI tools like ChatGPT use to produce output. As AI technology advances, LLMs will continue to proliferate – with businesses and organizations crafting their own unique LLMs to inform their AI tools. For communicators, this means that brand building services like brand identity, logo creation, messaging, voice and tone will prove increasingly valuable in the years ahead.
In addition to their insight on LLMs, Simmonds and Rinehart outlined how AI will soon transform the way we search online due to generative search. Generative search harnesses the power of AI to connect people with answers to their questions through new, AI-powered pathways. It’s too soon to tell how this will influence search engine optimization strategies, but we do know generative search is sure to have an impact on the way organizations connect with new and existing audiences.
It sounds scary, but the solution is simple. Amid advancements in generative search, our keynote speakers emphasized the importance of knowing, nurturing and building your audience through owned platforms like websites, newsletters, podcasts, apps and more. It is crucial to create opportunities to connect directly to the inboxes, ears and eyes of the audiences you care about through platforms your organization can predict, plan for and manage.
That’s enough tech talk for now. Time to get into equity.
Inner work advances equity
My favorite workshop (learning lab) of the conference was hosted by Niiobli Armah IV and Ashley Jones of We-Collab, an equity strategy firm based out of Houston. Armah and Jones came to ComNet to facilitate a conversation on advancing DEI impact through communications.
The learning lab began with a discussion around broken systems. At Barefoot PR, we spend a lot of time learning about and grappling with the impacts of systemic inequity as it’s the impetus for many of our clients’ existence. This conversation on systems, however, was different.
“Systems are broken. But there are people in those systems that are breaking,” shared Armah and Jones.
They used the next hour to highlight the importance of inner work in DEI efforts. Inner work is the evaluation and understanding of the influences that each of us bring to the table as we move about the world. The people and places that shape us impact the way we process and respond to information. Acknowledging these influences is the first step. Confronting and correcting the inequity they push us to perpetuate is DEI in action.
A lack of inner work leads to inequity among individuals and within institutions. This session reminded me to prioritize my own inner work and empower others to do the same. DEI efforts aren’t something that can be easily quantified or ever completed. They are a commitment that individuals and organizations must make for the long haul. Inner work is the first step.
Don’t be afraid to be bold
Armah and Jones concluded their learning lab with a challenge to all of us: Be bold. If we want to make progress in our DEI efforts, we must be bold enough to do inner work and have challenging conversations.
Theirs wasn’t the only session that proposed this challenge. Throughout the conference, the call to empower our clients and community leaders to be bold was echoed. It was my biggest takeaway from LaTosha Brown’s closing keynote on Day 1.
LaTosha Brown is the visionary, activist, artist and co-founder of Black Voters Matter. Brown used her stage time to share the biggest lessons learned throughout her career in community organizing and connection. Like her conference counterparts, LaTosha emphasized the importance of bold leadership.
According to a recent report from Independent Sector, nonprofits remain among the most trusted institutions in America. This data emphasizes a long-standing reality – communities tend to trust the nonprofit sector’s impact and intentions more than media, government and corporations.
This presents an opportunity for purpose-driven organizations.
With public trust comes the power to spark meaningful dialogue and influence systemic change. Nonprofit, foundation and purpose driven organizations can use this power to pull up a seat to the table and empower governments, corporations and media into action on the causes they care about. But this opportunity requires boldness.
Communications leaders like LaTosha Brown called upon leaders to say the bold statements that they’ve shied away from and practice the bold leadership that they are capable of. The public is watching and is trusting in their ability to make an impact. So consider this your invitation to be bold.
Thank you to The Communications Network for creating a space for communications for good professionals from across the country to learn from, connect with and be bold alongside one another. I can’t wait to keep learning more.
Written by Maura O’Leary, Strategy Associate at Barefoot PR