This week, President Joe Biden re-entered the United Nations’ Paris Climate Agreement, reaffirming the United States’ commitment to climate action and international collaboration. While a welcome shift from the last four years of climate denial, polluter-friendly policy-making, and environmental lawsuits, the United States has mountains of work ahead of us to regain the trust of our international partners.
As the United States endeavors to rebuild that trust and prove its commitment to preventing climate catastrophe, we are reflecting on our past few years of work with international clients and partners fighting for human rights, equitable energy access, and food sovereignty.
Playing our part as communications partners in their movements, the RALLY team gleaned important lessons on building trust, embracing setbacks, communicating across language and cultural barriers, and committing to shift power dynamics — all lessons that are relevant for any partnership, but especially true as we serve our international clients from afar.
1. Trust isn’t given — it’s earned.
As an “American” company, we know that we have to work hard to build our credibility and trust with international partners. We recognize the history of outdated philanthropy models that place power in the hands of international “experts” rather than the communities they are purporting to serve. We’re grateful to work with clients who are committed to upending these models, and we know that earning the trust of our clients and their grantees is critical to delivering valuable communications support.
Our process and approach to new campaigns is key to building relationships with our clients and their trust in our counsel. We don’t jump straight into recommendations, especially when we are new to an issue space or cultural context. First, we do our research to understand the issue and context — whether that’s understanding the media narratives around oil development in Uganda, exploring how African activists use social media to advance African-driven solutions to climate change, or how government stakeholders message on energy access issues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Our research isn’t just for curiosity’s sake. Through this process, we show our clients that we are in it for the long haul by building our own issue expertise that informs our strategy recommendations.
2. Flexibility can transform setbacks into opportunities.
In March 2020, we were preparing to travel to Kampala, Uganda for the African Climate Summit to deliver communications, messaging, and media trainings for our African partners advocating for food sovereignty and climate justice.
Then, everything changed. When the spreading COVID-19 pandemic forced the United Nations to cancel the African Climate Summit, we faced another trust-building hurdle to overcome with our client: travel restrictions. Earning trust is critical in normal circumstances, but even more so when travel is impossible and face-to-face relationship building is limited to Zoom meetings. With international travel off the table, we had to rethink our approach, not only to how we would deliver these trainings, but how we would support all of our international clients from several thousand miles away without the option to travel.
Transitioning to a virtual plan made it harder to train our clients and their partners on media interviews and social media content creation. In-person, you can pick up on the small gestures used in a mock interview, build connections with peers through ice-breakers, and seamlessly collaborate together on practice assignments. Despite these setbacks, we re-formatted our trainings to cater to a Zoom audience and seized the opportunities presented by conducting the trainings online. We were able to include more activists from across Africa than planned, and we investigated ways to make sure people without reliable internet could still access our training materials. We recorded our trainings, and worked with partners to engage a diverse range of stakeholders to participate. We also offered 1:1 follow-ups over the phone or internet calls or email to make sure everyone received the support they needed.
Being there (virtually) for our clients through the pitfalls, uncertainty, change-of-plans, and political shifts — and highlighting opportunities to overcome them — is central to being effective partners across international borders.
3. A good communicator prioritizes listening.
Another essential way to earn trust is to approach the work ready to listen first, and consult second. We have been engaged as the communications experts and we know the human rights and climate justice advocacy space well. But our clients and partners are the true experts who know what’s happening on the ground.
Working with a coalition of civil organizations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we are not only entering a new context for RALLY as a firm but also working to develop a communications strategy and messaging in French. To meet these new challenges, we prioritized ensuring we hear directly from each coalition member in 1:1 conversations to learn from their experiences and ensure we are up to date with the changing political contexts. When it comes to developing the messaging itself, we recognized that simply writing messages in English and translating them to French would not be effective — so we’ve engaged a Francophone Congolese journalist to help drive our messaging development. We are also having our consultant meet with community members to bring them into the messaging process and make sure they have the tools they need to advocate for their rights. In all of our work, we are listening first, and consulting second.
4. Check your assumptions at the border.
RALLY has been fighting Big Oil in California for six years with plenty of critical wins along the way. While we have learned a lot from our campaign in California, not all of it is applicable across different languages and cultural contexts. Recently, we joined forces with civil society partners in Uganda on a campaign to stop oil and gas development in the country. Through in-depth stakeholder interviews, we learned that one of our messaging assumptions from our work in California — that focusing on the negative health impacts of oil and gas development is crucial — was not going to be as effective in Uganda.
We quickly learned we needed to develop a communications campaign centered on the economic case for alternative industries and engage diverse messengers working across sectors like tourism, agriculture, and clean energy to make this case. As we build this cross-sector network of experts, we are meeting with stakeholders bi-weekly to co-create messaging to share our sustainable and inclusive economic vision. By listening to our partners from the outset, we earned their trust and buy-in on a strategy to create long-term and meaningful narrative change.
5. Embodying equity is key to revolutionary communications.
To defend and advance human rights, one cannot simply execute communications strategies — we have to disrupt the power dynamics inherent in communications. Consultants are often in the position of gatekeepers of communications skills, tools, and even the messages themselves. Shifting these power dynamics starts with rejecting the role of the gatekeeper and building the communications capacity and skills of our clients, partners, and stakeholders.
Working alongside a network of African food and climate justice activists, we prioritized communications strategies that amplify the voices and leadership of those most impacted: African farmers, fisherfolks, and food producers who steward their lands with these sustainable practices.
We provided communications training to the network to build the skills needed to amplify the voices, stories, and perspectives of women, young people, pastoralists, and small-scale food producers. Participants learned ways to share their own stories on social media, build relationships with journalists, and deliver impactful interviews.
6. Racism, colonialism, and injustice must be named.
Just as we must know and name the ways that systemic anti-Black racism has perpetuated environmental injustice in the United States, the impact of colonialism and unjust, racist models of philanthropy and capitalism, must be named in how we communicate about climate justice and social justice around the world. Oil companies, banks, and other financiers of extractive industries in Africa continue to benefit from colonial and capitalist models that harm and disempower communities who are already the most impacted by and least responsible for climate change.
As the world responded to the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and countless other Black men and women lost to racist violence, one of the most powerful pieces in the global conversation about anti-Black racism was from Million Belay, the General Coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, called “I Can’t Breathe’, Says Africa”, detailing how neoliberalism and neocolonialism continue to oppress Africans. At this moment — as always — our role as consultants is to listen, learn, and make sure our communications materials and messaging carry these messages forward.
As we continue serving our international clients, these best practices ensure that we earn their trust and deliver strategic communications support from the other side of the world. While we look forward to supporting our clients in person once again, we are always grateful for the opportunities to build relationships, develop narrative-shifting messaging, and transform power dynamics in communications together.
RALLY is an issue-driven communications firm | Certified force for good by B Corporation
Our team consists of experts in political, media, and digital strategy. Get inside our brain: click here to sign up for the official newsletter. Learn more at wearerally.com.