The social sector has long focused on the public narrative, but now feels different. Leaders of advocacy groups, foundations, and nonprofits are awakening to the critical need to identify the dominant public narrative around their issue, and assert a more compelling alternative that helps people think differently about solutions. If you are a leader in this field and are trying to find your way to shifting the public narrative around your cause, there is one place you must start: Identify the current dominant narrative.
Ask yourself these questions:
Why would people care?This issue is obviously very important to you, but why would others care? What you want to identify is how regular people would typically connect with your mission. Having trouble? Try this: If two people were having a conversation about [INSERT SOCIAL ISSUE HERE], what would they be saying? This is a different question than “Why do people care?” The answer to that question may very well be: “They don’t.” So answer the “should” question first, then turn to reality.
Who is involved? The narrative – or story – around your issue has all the elements of every story ever told. It starts with characters. So, who are the characters in your story, as people see it today? When the same mythical pair mentioned above is talking about your issue, who are they placing in that story?
What is the purpose? Chances are, you see the answer to this question differently than regular people might. If you work in education, you see the purpose of education as strengthening our country, while members of the public may see it as getting good grades and a good job. If you work in environmental protection, you see your purpose as reversing a fatal trend in the climate, while the public may prioritize a more short-term purpose, like preventing extreme weather.
Who / What can we blame? If your cause represents a problem that needs solving (and it always does), then who or what does the public blame for causing that problem? Is it the behavior of individuals? Is it a flaw in a system? The answer to how the public defines your problem is essential to reshaping the lens through which the public considers fixing it.
How do we find our way out? This is not an ultimate outcome question. It is not a visioning exercise about how life would be different if the problem were solved. This is about solutions to find your way toward that vision. How does the public consider fixing the problem? Keep in mind, the answer may be that the public cannot conceive of a solution. In communications, that mindset is called fatalism.
There is research that can help you here. The FrameWorks Institute, Goodwin Simon Strategic Research and others can be great resources for finding material relevant to your cause. But in the absence of existing material, you can engineer your own exercise, informally, to try to get to the bottom of how the public thinks and talks about the issues that you care about. Only then can you go about shifting it.
Shaun Adamec is a communications professional, crisis planning expert, and recovering political operative. He is President and Founder of Adamec Communications, which helps those who seek to change the world find their voice.