by | Apr 15, 2024

Campaigning in solidarity: Stories for change

The third in our four-part series about campaigning in solidarity. Telling stories for change is a key issue for professional campaigners seeking to work meaningfully alongside people with first-hand experience. How do we communicate effectively, and how can we share impactful stories without exploiting others’ experiences?  

This series offers insights from our programme for Oak Foundation’s UK Housing and Homelessness partners, bringing together theory and practice to develop new thinking for Solidarity in Social Change. 

Know your audience 

According to SMK Associate, Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin, the first step to creating impactful communications is understanding our audience. Then, it’s about crafting a clearly framed message, and speaking directly to them.  

Effective campaign communications are not driven by what we want to say, but by what our audience needs to hear – to inspire them to take action. So, it’s essential to know what audiences we’re speaking to and what messages will persuade and inspire them. An impactful story or message is never aimed at ‘the general public’. We need to be specific. And being specific means interrogating our own assumptions about who we need to reach and why.  

Our messages will have a different impact on different audiences, and that’s okay. With the right message we can: 

Galvanise the base: motivating them to get more involved in our campaign and to carry our message to others. 

Persuade the middle: tapping into their progressive instincts and gradually shifting their perspective. 

Alienate the opposition: rather than wasting time and resources trying to win over audiences who will never agree. 

To get to know your audience, start by asking some key questions:  

  • Who do we need to reach to achieve the change we want? 
  • What do we already know about them and how can we learn more? 
  • How and where do we reach them? 
  • How do we design our communications to motivate them to act?  

We all know effective communication when we see it. For example, throughout the rail strikes, Mick Lynch, Secretary-general of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, has shown a rock-solid understanding that his key audience is RMT union members themselves. His primary campaign goal has arguably been to keep members engaged with the strike, by demonstrating that he understood their concerns and expressing anger on their behalf. As an example of solidarity in communication, he both represented and spoke to the key audience and, by tapping into the concerns of others, captured the national mood.  

Frame your message 

Once we know our key audience, we need to craft a clear message. These six principles of narrative framing will help us tell stories in ways that resonate with our audience’s existing values and beliefs, to inspire hope and action.

  1. Lead with shared values 
  2. Clarify the problem, and who is responsible for it 
  3. Offer a solution 
  4. Say what we believe using our own language (not our opponent’s) 
  5. Frame data so it supports your message 
  6. Use visuals and metaphors that reinforce our frames 

The Talking about Housing project (led by JRF and Nationwide Foundation in partnership with FrameWorks UK) has created a free framing toolkit with evidence-backed principles and practical examples for how to craft effective messages about housing and homelessness. 

Framing is important, but it’s also essential to be aware of the risks involved – especially when framing is done without input from people with first-hand experience themselves. Assumptions and biases can be baked in from the start. Bringing people together early in the process, to hear different perspectives and develop trusting relationships, can ensure those whose lives are most affected don’t feel alienated by your message. 

Develop a spokesperson approach 

We’ve heard some distressing stories about organisations who have asked people to share stories of their own first-hand experience as part of a campaign, which has led to harm. Too often, people are asked to retell personal stories of hardship in a way that leaves them feeling reduced to a single aspect of their experience, or that their story has been used in a way that won’t benefit them. Some have been exposed to unkindness or abuse. Not all journalists can be trusted to approach a situation with empathy, and social media can be cruel and divisive. 

Rufus Bouverie, Communications Officer at Living Rent, suggests that moving away from thinking about people as individual case studies towards a network of spokespeople, speaking out on key messages agreed by all, is a safer and more effective strategy. Living Rent’s successful campaign for a Scottish rent-freeze, and their ongoing work to close the loopholes and continue to fight for a fair deal for tenants, is testament to this approach.  

Some key principles for developing a spokesperson approach include: 

Develop a skilled network: Formalise opportunities to work together over time to agree a strategy and frame your message, rather than call on individuals in an ad hoc way to share their story. Don’t limit people’s value to the stories they can tell. What other skills can they bring? What new skills can you help them develop?  

Prioritise relationships and support: If you can, of course, provide media training. At the very least, work towards a culture of mutual support and safety in the group. 

Decide together in advance which stories to include: Make sure people understand the risks. They don’t have to share everything about their experience, or even tell their own story. Help people understand that they’re sharing on behalf of the collective. At Living Rent, this means encouraging people to speak ‘through’ a journalist, rather than ‘to’ them – and keeping the focus on the agreed problem, impact and solution. 

Manage expectations and minimise the role of the individual: It can be scary to agree to share a personal story, and if things go wrong people can feel responsible for the success or failure of a campaign. Of course, following up and taking concerns seriously is vital. But so is developing a culture where giving an interview is just one role in a bigger campaign strategy, which will inevitably experience highs and lows.  

Start slowly: Don’t expect someone to be able to handle a national interview on their first outing with the press. Rehearse with the network, start with smaller, local audiences – and don’t underestimate the value of the local press. Never push someone to do something they’re not comfortable with, even if they decide at the last minute to pull out. 

Build relationships with journalists: At Living Rent, all media inquiries go through Rufus to ensure a single point of contact and alleviate pressure on the spokespeople. It’s his job to understand the journalists’ agendas, and ensure spokespeople only work with those who can be trusted not to derail an interview or misrepresent a story – or feel fully prepared and ready to take that risk. 

Of course, as a tenants’ union made up of members, Living Rent there is less of a binary distinction between ‘professionals’ and those with ‘lived experience’ that many organisations are trying to overcome. For many working in charities and social sector organisations, their connections with the communities they serve can feel more transient and there can be barriers to overcome in nurturing trust.  

Yet, anyone can take inspiration from this approach by committing to developing ongoing relationships with people wherever possible, valuing their contributions beyond their personal story, developing a clear, shared understanding of campaign aims and messages and developing a reflective culture, to celebrate and support each other.   

Thanks to Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin, SMK associate and communicating for change specialist, and to Rufus Bouverie, Communications Officer at Living Rent, for sharing their insights at our recent event.

Further reading

For more on the theory behind crafting clear, powerful stories for change, check out the module Communicating for Change on SMK’s free training resource, the Changemakers’ Toolkit. 

Watch this film, And Numbers we Will Bring, developed in partnership with Social Action Inquiry Scotland, for an intimate glimpse into the work of Living Rent, and the hopes, dreams and challenges of its members as it works to transform a broken housing system into the homes we so desperately need. 

Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas is the Head of Power and Participation at SMK



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