The Pop Culture Pivot

Still think pop culture is too unserious for your work? We’re here to change that!

On Morning Joe, Donald Trump asked a national security expert about U.S. nuclear weapons policy. “If we have them, why can’t we use them,” Trump mused. Groups working on non-proliferation and world peace jumped into high gear. They lit up the Twittersphere, and sent notices to talk show bookers about experts available to explain the restrictions (silly treaties) and consequences (human extinction) of lobbing nuclear warheads at our fellow Earthlings. Groups pulled up the op-ed they had in their queue, written for just this moment, and emailed it to an editor for consideration.

Same thing for hacking. When the DNC was hacked, groups that work on privacy and surveillance or voter integrity or cybersecurity, all had an opportunity to insert themselves into the news cycle. They knew it was time to act, and they were ready. Savvy groups understand the importance of rapid response. They find ways to take advantage of a controversy to have their concerns and solutions inserted into the conversation.

But when a movie or TV show comes out and raises similarly hot social issues, many groups don’t recognize this as an opportunity. Let’s take the recent summer blockbuster Suicide Squad. Panned by critics, but breaking box office records, the action film has spawned conversations like the one in USA Today titled: “Is Harley Quinn a feminist character in ‘Suicide Squad’? A discussion.” Reporters Kelly Lawler and Cara Kelly end their article with this call to action: “This demonstrates why we need more women and people of color behind the camera, guiding decisions based on their own experiences. I’m hopeful for Wonder Woman (out June 2, 2017), which has a woman (Patty Jenkins) in the director’s chair. Although it’s still scripted by three men.” Gah. People working on gender equality should be all over this film! It is an engraved invitation to participate.

Feminism isn’t the only social issue Suicide Squad raises. It touches on dating violence, criminal justice and civic engagement. You may wonder, despite the significant issues it examines, whether viewers are affected or merely entertained. To borrow from DT, the online reach of this film is YUGE. You want numbers? Deadline reports to the following: “With a social reach close to 600M across Facebook, Instagram Twitter, and YouTube views, Suicide Squad’s social reach is considered exceptional by RelishMix. The film’s Facebook page in recent days added 80K likes per day, which is off the charts by the social media monitor’s measure. Smith is tubthumping to his 75M Facebook fans, Cara Delevinge pumped up the DC adaptation to her 43M, while Jared Leto has reached out to his 13M.”

Will Smith post to his Facebook page of 75M followers. 23.5K shares, 701K likes, 4.4K comments. WOW.

That’s A LOT of people talking about the movie and the subjects it presents, creating a golden opportunity for issue groups to connect what they want to talk about with what millions of people who already are talking about. Still, not enough are taking advantage of Suicide Squad or other film and TV storylines coming soon to a screen near you.

More organizations need to sharpen their organizational muscle to do a Pop Culture Pivot. This is a move where groups do three important things:

  1. They realize that many of our social norms and beliefs are shaped by experiences and this includes what we see in film and television. When groups see how a film or television storyline can help them raise a social issue in a creative way, we call this the Pop Culture Epiphany.
  2. Just like one does with news, organizations monitor the pop culture sphere to see what upcoming opportunities are perfect to tee off of and get ready to go. We call this P.C.Q. Like IQ, an organization’s Pop Culture Quotient measures its ability to spot pop culture opportunities and use them for good.
  3. They go. They develop creative digital memes, host an online “Is she a feminist?” debate if we are talking about Suicide Squad, or create their own sizzle reel (featuring how to avoid dating violence as a tee off of Suicide Squad). We call this the Pop Culture Go because like PokeStops, pop culture opportunities are endless.

Need one final nudge? Here’s Michelle Obama, Master of Pop Culture for Impact, explaining how stories create empathy.

Check out our Tip Sheet below, and get in touch with us for more on how to make the Pop Culture Pivot.

-Kristen Grimm is the President of Spitfire Strategies


How to help your organization do the Pop Culture Pivot.

First, help everyone have a Pop Culture Epiphany.

  • Have everyone sit in a circle. If there is a fire and marshmallows, even better. Now ask everyone to think of a movie or TV show that made them think differently. Perhaps they decided to go off the grid after seeing Robot or realized they could be president because they watch VEEP.
  • Think about how you can use pop culture strategically. Can it help you challenge a stereotype, build empathy, reshape a social norm?

Next, increase your Pop Culture Quotient by figuring out what opportunities are there for you to take advantage of.

  • Think about recent films and TV shows that touched on issues you work on. What could you have done with them? Get creative. Now think about how to stay up-to-speed on upcoming opportunities. You may have a secret weapon in your staff. Figure out who is addicted to reality shows, doesn’t miss a Marvel movie and has a soft spot for Disney’s happy endings. Check out the org database and sign up for issue alerts.

Entice your organization to experiment with pop culture so you can get to Pop Culture Go.

  • Set up a prize for the first person to do the Pop Culture Pivot. Then offer other inducements to keep trying and celebrate the experiments whatever the outcome to show that the effort is what you are rewarding.
  • Gather lessons learned and share so the whole organization cultivates this mindset and helps you not let valuable communication opportunities pass you by.