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10 things you can do to tell better stories in the 2020s

Kirsty McNeill, executive director for policy, advocacy and campaigns at Save the Children UK, looks ahead and shares what she thinks the strategic communications environment looks like for the next decade.

Folk at The Wellcome Trust are thinking big. Really big. They are looking at ways to improve the health of everybody everywhere and what role all of us can play in furthering science. But they know that philanthropy – even at its most strategic and ambitious – needs to keep adapting to changed conditions. I was really pleased to have the chance to speak with them about what I think the strategic communications environment looks like for the next ten years and to share some lessons we’ve learnt at Save the Children about how to tell better stories in these volatile times.

I started with four hypotheses about the world we are in, identifying trends that I think are simultaneously significant, global and likely to last the full decade. The first is the increasing political potency of debates about inequality. At a popular level that will play out with continual anger about the causes and consequences of the global financial crisis. For businesses and governments it will be found in the mantra of ‘Leave No-One Behind’, the pledge around convergence that is at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals. In Westminster and Whitehall, it will mean ‘levelling up’ between North and South.

The second is the extent to which we are in a movement moment. There has been a big uptick of popular mobilisation in many of the contexts where we work, despite the shrinkage of civil society space and the ‘age of impunity’ around attacks on aid workers, activists, human rights defenders and journalists. It is dangerous to stand up but increasing numbers of people are prepared to and movements which speak to core values or immediate needs are scaling quickly.

The third is that we are losing the battle over narrative and norms (and we don’t even know it). Whether it’s defending vaccines, the impact of aid, the legitimacy of the welfare state or refugee and migrant rights, many justice movements are losing a battle over narratives and norms in closed digital spaces we can’t even see.

The fourth is that all institutions face a crisis of legitimacy. Trust in both the motivations and effectiveness of institutions is low across many of the contexts where we work. Here in the UK, this is partly a reflection of our economic, cultural and geographic distance from our audiences, and the ‘empathy delusion’ that stops us feeling it. Questions about white saviourism and colonialism in international organisations will rightly become more insistent as fluency in the language of power and privilege grows.

If these hypotheses are correct, they add up to a pretty inhospitable environment for social purpose organisations like Wellcome and Save the Children. The strategies that served us well for the last decade won’t serve us well for the next ten. There are, however, ten things we can do to meet and master the challenges of these new times.

If inequality is going to dominate debates, we need to understand more about what’s driving it. That means:

1. Backing ‘systems entrepreneurs’ and not just thematic specialists. We absolutely need people with deep technical expertise in specific issues but the people making the biggest difference will be those who can see how different decisions fit together to create systemic inequalities and injustices. The RSA calls this ‘thinking like a system, acting like an entrepreneur’. Strategic philanthropy will increasingly back disruptive individuals with a diagnosis of and prescription for broken systems.

2. Investment in tools like Save the Children’s Group-Based Inequality Database (GRID). There is nothing more political – or more revealing – than how a society allocates money on who lives and who dies. If we care about global health we have to care about how it is financed and who is being left – or being pushed – behind.

If we are in a movement moment we should:

3. Increasingly think about ‘fields’ rather than sectors and coalitions. I’ve spent a lot of my career running formal charity coalitions and the lessons on how to do that is a blog for another day. Increasingly I’m convinced we will need much looser movement infrastructure in the future, finding ways to make sense of constellations including thinkers, writers, cultural leaders, funders and systems entrepreneurs as well as organisational and grassroots leaders. When I have written before about our movement moment I have stressed the need for unbranded leadership emerging from lots of different organisations. Increasingly I think some of our leaders won’t have an institutional home at all and funders will need to find a way to work with those whose contribution will take the form of writing books or producing art to help us make sense of where we are.

4. Make the move from campaigning to organising. Save the Children is in the middle of this transition but the campaign for aid and development has long understood the importance of ‘local resonance’ and not giving the (false) impression that your issue is for ‘other people’s people’, as campaign director Richard Darlington lays out so well here.

If we are losing the narrative and norms war our best bets are to:

5. Kill off the literalism. We know that telling people they are wrong just entrenches their views and we know that myth-busting simply makes the myths more memorable. I’m afraid it’s time to say goodbye to #AidWorks, #VaccinesWork and #CampaigningWorks (unless we are just using them as ways to tag content to make it easier for those who already agree with us to find). Instead, we should focus more on appealing to universal human truths as we did with Save the Children’s recent #IAmTheFuture brand advert.

6. Investing significantly in engaging at the level of popular culture. The Holocaust Educational Trust did this successfully with Holby City, the Children’s Society have recently been working with Hollyoaks and you can read more about Unbound Philanthropy’s cutting edge thinking here. There is clearly an appetite for programming that helps social issues become tangible and relevant – 24 Hours in A&E is now in its 20th season – but there doesn’t seem to be much coordination between organisations and funders working on culture. If I’m wrong I’m very happy to be – so please get in touch if this is happening quietly.

7. Back those who are charting what’s happening in closed online spaces and take their advice. The Center for Countering Digital Hate’s Don’t Feed the Trolls report was a gamechanger for me (and led to me going on the board, for full disclosure). On many issues professional campaigners are often blind to the online forums shaping tomorrow’s memes and testing out the dog-whistles that do so much damage to the causes and communities we love.

And finally, if we face a crisis of legitimacy the areas to focus on are

8. Becoming as diverse as we can as quickly as we can. The ‘Empathy Delusion’ report is one of the best things I’ve read this year, charting not only how far many comms professionals are from our audience, but how dangerously naïve we are about that being the case. Staying in our bubbles but developing greater empathy with those outside them is not the answer – bursting the bubbles through radical inclusion is. NPC’s Walking the Talk series has a load of resources on that if you don’t know where to start.

9. Making an intellectually self-confident case for the value of institutions. I spoke at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government last year and made the case for public sector leaders being more assertive about their value and their values. I was asked, fairly, what it would look like in practice. A few months later it became clear – it looks like the Chief Medical Officer calling out the errant nonsense of a politician or the Made at Uni campaign giving tangible examples of what universities do for all of us.

My final tip doesn’t relate to any of the specific trends but is the most important thing we can do if we feel overwhelmed by the combination of them:

10. Take care of each other. There is a lot of discussion in activist circles about self-care. My worry is this is coming at the same time as the mass retreat to private life as many of our best campaigners and communicators are concluding the public square is just too toxic to operate in. I understand the temptation and I’ve written elsewhere about the seven trends that are undermining our democracy. I’m frightened and on the edge of burn-out too. I know it’s tough out there, but if our collective liberation is rooted in our collective action then surely we need to find a way to move to collective care, a model where all of us take care of each of us and nobody has to take care of themselves.

We don’t have any time to lose in testing and adapting these ten lessons and formulating new ones. We have just ten years to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. In the coming decade, we could determine, once and for all, that it is intolerable that anybody anywhere will die simply because they are too poor to stay alive. If we achieve it, people like us – the campaigners and communicators – will have been at the heart of the greatest thing we’ve ever done as a species. What greater story could there be than that?

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

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