How (and Why) to do a Cultural Audit

Cultural strategy is a field of practice that centers artists, storytellers, media makers and cultural influencers as agents of social change. It springs from the central notion that politics is where some of the people are some of the time, but culture is where all of the people are all of the time. A key component to smart cultural strategy is the cultural audit, a research practice that provides movements and campaigns with a deeper and more emotionally resonant understanding of their audience than traditional research practices do on their own. Cultural audits help orient campaigns’ communications strategies to the cultural lives of their audience, getting to the heart of the audience’s hopes, fears and joys as expressed in the culture they consume, make and share. Cultural audits can also help campaigns discover pathways that truly inspire audiences and have the capability of uniting otherwise disparate groups.

As a result of the deep context that cultural audits provide, they have served as critical inputs to strategies and projects that use co-creation to engage youth of color in civic engagement and work towards reframing narratives around nuclear disarmament. They have been equally important to candidates and movements ranging from reproductive rights to immigration to economic justice and beyond. For instance, in a cultural audit for Ploughshares Fund on the American public’s understanding of nuclear proliferation, current narrative themes on nuclear arms that hinder policy change and that run through popular culture were identified, such as “the only problem with nuclear weapons is that bad guys have them”. The cultural audit also identified two specific audiences that, because of the culture they consume, could be best engaged through cultural strategy. Cultural audits have also identified an important cultural shift from the lone hero like “007” to groups of heroes (The Avengers, the young wizards in Harry Potter, “Black Panther”) that is being reflected in current movements where there are group leadership models and identification (e.g. #metoo, the Parkland students taking on the NRA, the teachers in West Virginia). As you can imagine, these insights can profoundly change how a campaign is structured, how it chooses its strategy, and how, when and where it tells its story.

Cultural audits uncover this kind of ripe data because it follows a methodology, created by experts in the field, that is a combination of quantitative and qualitative research, as well as cultural and narrative analysis. They study popular culture as well as the underground and emerging cultures that surround and shape both an audience and a campaign environment.

While there are different approaches to cultural audits, most answer similar critical questions about an audience such as:

  • WHERE does this audience gather to discuss / discover cultural content?
  • WHAT cultural content and narrative themes already exists in the lives of our audience?
  • WHO are cultural leaders that appeal to the audience(s) and could be allies?
  • WHEN are important cultural moments for this audience? (e.g.: A movie release date, a music festival, a holiday)

Most cultural audits also follow three phases of work. The first phase focuses on data collection through surveys, scans, existing studies and interviews. This includes popular and sub-culture observers and critics whose work can help provide context from the data. The second is focused on analysis of this data to identify themes and trends relevant to the project or organization the audit is for. The final phase is delivery of the cultural audit in a summary document that focuses on analysis and recommendations. The final document outlines and synthesizes particular components or disciplines of popular culture (e.g., music, TV, Film) for its audience, and includes research and analysis of overarching cultural themes.

It is important that cultural audits be done by professionals who understand cultural strategy and research. There are several consultants that are experienced at performing cultural audits, including but not limited to Moore & Associates, The USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center Media Impact Project, and A More Perfect Story. Quick audits cost in the range of $20,000 to $35,000, but more in-depth processes and content analysis with deeper recommendation for implementation can reach into six figures.

Cultural audits should be done in advance of developing a cultural strategy or campaign plan, and while other forms of research (qualitative, quantitative, etc.) are under way. This allows for research techniques to build upon one another. Our experience is that the most useful data points will be the ones that are consistent across all forms of research. This high-level, multidisciplinary research approach can be done at a movement-level, say on an issue like immigration or gender justice, as well as at a campaign level like family separation or #metoo.

As a recent article in The New York Times said, “Art didn’t invent oppressive gender roles, racial stereotyping or rape culture, but it reflects, polishes and sells them back to us every moment of our waking lives. We make art, and it simultaneously makes us.” And that is why research about art and culture offers an unparalleled window into the lives of audiences that we wish to engage.