We Owe Our Clients Trauma-Informed Communications (and so do you)

By Hillary Moglen and Lara Bergthold

As an issues-driven communications firm, we often work with clients who have experienced trauma on individual and community levels. Communicating with people who’ve experienced or are experiencing trauma requires a different approach — an approach that we are still in the process of learning. In that spirit, we thought we’d share some of the lessons we’ve learned so far.

Trauma-informed communications, in our minds, means getting to the core of what our clients are trying to communicate in a way that can move people, but without further traumatizing the survivors, and in turn, triggering other survivors. At RALLY, we believe strongly in ensuring our campaigns are rooted in story-telling, specifically the stories of those most impacted by the social issues at the root of our campaigns (i.e. a person who has experienced homelessness speaking about homelessness). However, while telling your own traumatizing story to a small group can feel scary, imagine knowing that a very personal, painful story will be on the cover of a national newspaper or viewed by millions on television. The key to trauma-informed communications is finding that delicate balance, which seeks to put the survivor at the center and empower them with control over the story they’re telling.

RALLY has worked with parents who’ve lost their children to gun violence, with women who’ve been sexually assaulted or harassed, with organizations who represent communities that are constantly experiencing trauma because they live without homes. We’ve also worked with those who have experienced deep poverty, racism, or who have been detained, among other things. In all these efforts, we found an authentic and powerful message, while ensuring we did not cause harm or anguish for those who have endured so much already. Here are some key principles that drive our work:

1. Listen with empathy.

It sounds obvious, but often if you’re talking to someone who’s experienced trauma, they don’t want to hear your opinion, they just want to be heard. Before we bring our communications expertise, we try to bring our humanity. We work to ensure they feel safe and respected. We want survivors to understand that we are coming to the conversation without judgement and as an ally in the broader work. And while we don’t necessarily share the same life experiences, we offer humility and compassion.

2. Guide with compassion.

We then carefully seek to help survivors understand how they will be heard by a larger audience and help them frame up a message that is concise, doesn’t trigger others unnecessarily, and has an impact. This can be harder than you think and the most important lesson we’ve learned is to understand that giving the individual control over their message may be more important than the message itself. We start by listening to what they want to say and then helping them hone their core talking points.

3. One size doesn’t fit all.

For some, sharing their experience directly on a big platform is empowering and inspiring, but for others, the individual spotlight raises safety concerns, logistical constraints, and other personal problems. In these instances, we work with the press to respect privacy without losing authenticity. It can be as simple as getting an approved quote without subjecting your client to an interview (if possible), to negotiating a sit-down on the condition of anonymity — but with sufficient detail. Every situation is unique, and we will not jeopardize someone’s safety or dignity or comfort because a reporter wants the information on his/her terms. There are other ways to ensure their experience is understood.

4. Take a step back: less is more.

People who’ve experienced trauma often can’t absorb a lot of information in the immediate aftermath. Think through the 1–2 critical things they need to communicate and stick to those. Write them down so they can refer back to them. Also, remember that as professionals we can often rush through things or talk really fast. Slow down, look at people in the eye, make human contact. They’ve got a lot going on in their brains and in their bodies, so respect that. Remind them that their story and experience matter and you are there to support them in telling it authentically.

5. Give survivors a reason to trust you.

When we come into someone’s life after a terrible tragedy, we’re basically strangers and we ask them to put their trust in us as people who are helping the world understand their story. Inevitably, at some point, something will go wrong in that process, and it’s important to say up front that you want to earn their trust, that open communication is key to that, and that mistakes will be made, but trust can be built if we share those mistakes and own up to them. Don’t share intimate details with anyone outside your team. Don’t push them to talk about something they’re clearly not ready to talk about. Have their best interest, instead of the story’s best interest at heart.

6. Understand that you’re not a therapist.

Absorbing someone’s trauma and shaping it into a story that can be communicated widely can make you feel like a therapist. You’re not. You aren’t trained as one and pretending otherwise is harmful to you and to the person who is traumatized. Resist giving advice about how they can feel better. Be kind and supportive but leave the healing work to the professionals. If they don’t have a therapist, see if you can refer them to one or connect them to an organization/network who can.

7. Practice self-care.

The details heard from survivors can be traumatizing when you hear them. We often fight back tears when working with people who are themselves weeping while telling their story. But it’s their story, and they shouldn’t have to take care of your pain in addition to their own. However, your pain should not go unaddressed. Share with colleagues, see a therapist, take a long walk. We’re not able to help others if we can’t help ourselves.

We are seeing more survivors of trauma in our work and in our everyday lives. Knowing how to navigate that world is going to be important for all of us if we want to honor those who are traumatized and heal ourselves as a nation.

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.