Interconnected Strategic Practices: How to Shift Narratives and Win Campaigns
Like many Americans in the Age of Trump, I am exhausted. Whether you’re a volunteer member of the Resistance or a paid professional (I’m kind of both), campaigning and organizing is hard and relentless work, and there’s little time or incentive to pause and look at the big picture: what are we doing, how, and to what end? How can we as a field build on one another’s knowledge, hold ourselves accountable and build confidence that our programs and practices are achieving their intended impact? And succeed or fail, how do we ensure we are learning and sharing what we learn far and wide?
Scarcity of resources makes the field competitive, with all of us angling to privilege our own methods, institutions, and livelihood, often at the expense of field-level progress.
Whether we are trying to flip a state senate chamber blue (congratulations, New York State) or budge society’s gender norms to a place of full and equal humanity for all genders, we need to understand that every point of contact with our audience involves content of some sort that has some kind of effect.
To succeed, progressives need to be great at three types of story-based engagement strategies: strategic communications, grassroots & field organizing, and cultural organizing. All three are crucial: none is superior. All are fundamental if we want enduring success. And they must be practiced in an interconnected and coordinated manner, informed by a rich and ongoing understanding of the audience.
Three Story-Based Practices
Typically, progressive campaigns and causes invest heavily in either strategic communications or in grassroots or field organizing, emphasizing whichever is core to their theory of change. Even if a campaign includes both, the functions are separated. And culture is minimally funded, if included at all. Most often culture is an independent, volunteer-driven activity.
Our model integrates all three types of content-driven audience engagement and employs a “story platform” as a shared basis. The story platform is a core narrative thread that is woven into every story told by a cause or campaign, whether delivered as part of a deep canvassing field operation, in paid media (traditional or digital), in artistic creations from networks of organized artists, or via any other contact with the audience. The story platform is not a tagline or ad copy, but rather the central, emotional plotline that functions as a differentiating narrative heart that speaks to the audience. Properly used, it produces executions and experiences that are cumulative in their impact because each separate tale ladders back to the core.
There are porous boundaries between these three different practices, and in addition to sharing a story platform as a basis for content, successful operations will have a deliberate strategy and accompanying structure that breaks down silos and promotes cross-fertilization among the activities.
“Strat comms” is the most traditional means of audience engagement and has historically been practiced in a top-down and centralized manner with the aim of supporting political, policy, or legislative campaigns with carefully controlled “messages.” Practitioners produce and curate different kinds of content — speeches, print, audio-visual content — and distribute it through a variety of channels. To be effective and to get past today’s ubiquitous ad blockers, the content must authentically connect with the audience and that generally means arriving in story form.
- Paid Media — Buying traditional advertising (TV, radio, print, out-of-home like transit advertising); digital advertising (Facebook, YouTube, Hulu, display, programmatic, mobile ads); and direct marketing (print collateral, digital)
- Owned Media — Using channels that are owned and controlled by campaigns or organizations to share content, for example, websites, mailing lists, email lists, mobile (including peer-to-peer texting), organic social media
- Earned Media — Press (interviews and coverage in national, local, ethnic, specialty or niche media); public appearances (speeches, panels); influencers (bloggers, celebrities); partnerships (corporate, NGOs, government)
- Advocacy — Written and spoken words delivered via lawsuits, testimony, and hearings
- Other Distribution — Licensing, syndication, and sales of merchandise, entertainment, products and more
Grassroots & Field Organizing
Grassroots organizing builds power, participation, and community from the ground up, and with a human touch. Campaign field organizing include election-related tactical operations such as voter registration, GOTV, and election protection. While the former is directed by community members and the latter by a campaign’s headquarters, they both involve person-to-person contact, local organizing, and they scale through a network effect. When coordinated, these local conversations and community-based knowledge inform strategic communications content … and vice versa. Many grassroots organizations and deep canvassing operations rest on the power of storytelling. (One inspiring example is Marshall Ganz’s Public Narrative training.) While randomized control tests have helped us learn that in GOTV efforts, encouraging people to make a plan to vote increases their likelihood of actually voting. That’s important for the immediate days leading up to an election, but insufficient to build deep civic engagement and shift our collective culture around voting and other forms of civic and political participation. Only storytelling can do that, and story is best if it is built on a story platform and spread via all the traditional field and grassroots activities at all touchpoints:
- Volunteer recruitment — bringing in others to the fold
- 1-on-1 conversations / canvassing — door knocking, pedestrian conversations, information tables
- Phone banks, text banks — place-based or virtual
- Petitions, voter guides
- Events — community meetings, house parties, town halls, demonstrations, marches
Cultural organizing builds intentional, cohesive programs and partnerships among artists, fans, and like-minded advocacy organizations and campaigns. Cultural organizing requires a “letting go” of strict control, similar to grassroots organizing, but when built on shared goals, strategy, and information — such as audience research and the story platform — extraordinary things can result.
- Artist-centered — Organizing and empowering artists, including both high-profile artists with national followings as well as emerging with local, niche, or regional relevance; building the power and capacity of artists as a community, both as skilled workers whose labor has value and as essential partners in the progressive movement. Strategies include artist grants, artist trainings, network building, and more.
- Fan-centered — The consuming and sharing of culture by activating pop culture fan communities as well as brand loyalists.
- Movement-centered — Adding creativity to our activism, particularly at live events, and bringing joy and fun into day-to-day grassroots organizing. Nurturing the creative within all of us.
“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.” (Lindy West, “We Got Rid of Some Bad Men. Now Let’s Get Rid of Bad Movies,” The New York Times)
Theory of Impact: How It All Connects
If we want to win campaigns, shift narratives, and drive fundamental culture change, we must begin with deep audience research. We need to understand what people are thinking, what they believe in, what they want, and — crucially — what stories they’re telling and what stories they’re watching and sharing. Research will allow us to understand and segment the audience in a meaningful way and build a story platform that is resonant with the audience because it’s derived from the audience’s lived truth about how the world works. Research activities might include a literature review, big data analysis, cluster analysis, surveys, story listening through in-depth interviews and focus groups, and a cultural audit to understand what stories the audience is watching and sharing.
Audience engagement must include all three practices described earlier: strategic communications, cultural organizing, and grassroots and field organizing. But crucially, there must be a strategy and a structure that promotes coordination and drives impact. The story platform is that strategy; it allows a complicated effort with a lot of moving parts stay aligned.
Collectively, the various engagement strategies drive a suite of overlapping outcomes. Near-term outcomes might include changes in awareness, knowledge, attitudes, perception, or behavior. Medium-term outcomes could include shifting norms and narratives, winning campaigns, and passing new laws and policies. It is over the long term that we can achieve culture change, fundamental social change, and see changes in our social, emotional, and physical conditions.
It’s important to remember there isn’t a straight line or causal sequence from one type of engagement activity to one type of outcome. Rather, we must appreciate there is an interaction effect among them all and small effects can add up to large ones over time, and sometimes big changes can happen suddenly. It’s not that strategic communications is used to drive only one kind of result, art is for another, and narrative shift happens only this way or that. It’s not either/or … it’s all-of-the-above. These three interconnected strategic practices — centered on a deep understanding of the audience and driven by the power of story — is the way we win near-term campaigns and drive long-term culture change.