The scale and ubiquity of mass and social media have boomed over the past 30 years. We can connect with like-minded people on the other side of the planet, share our personal stories with millions and break a global news story from our phones. Yet civil society hasn’t really cracked a way in which to pursue social change in this arena.
The Social Power report, published by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation in June, identified four domains in which change activity occurs. The “public sphere” is the domain of media, public protest, behaviour change and social movements. However, when it comes to social change, we found that established civil society tends to dwell mostly in the domain of “institutional power” (home of policy and public affairs).
Increasingly beloved of funders and senior managers, the performance-management approach to campaigning is at least partially responsible. It requires predefined and measurable outcomes, and the denizens of Westminster are inherently more predictable than the public.
There is much to be gained from venturing boldly into the public sphere. Social media has been fertile soil for social movements. Black Lives Matter, Me Too and Occupy all started their exponential growth when the efforts of a few individuals were shared, emulated and harnessed. The Time to Change mental health campaign supported people to tell their own stories in the way they chose. It was designed to reduce stigma and discrimination, but it also provided a strong stimulus for policy change.
Mass entertainment often tackles social issues, but stories are mediated – by commissioning, writing, editing, casting and production – through the lens of the dominant mind-set. In the UK, this is overwhelmingly white, middle-class and male. EastEnders attempted to crack the lens recently when it invited families who had lost relatives to knife crime to appear in a funeral scene holding pictures of their loved ones. And the US reboot of Queer Eye dropped five gay men into the Deep South, opening eyes across divides of race, religion, class, gender and sexuality. Civil society would do well to consider working with the new breed of creative media professionals who are prepared to break the rules to bring unexpected perspectives to a mass audience.
The cost of diving into the public sphere is a willingness to lose control of messaging, ownership and even agenda once your ideas are “out there”. For an established charity, unable to emulate the scrappiness and flexibility of a grass-roots rebel movement, striking out into people-driven change will also require internal change. It needs a more mature approach to risk-assessment, a focus on mission, a willingness to accept unknown outcomes and the ability to commit to a horizon longer than two years.
Pinning your hopes on radical legal or policy change through Westminster is not the comfortable option it once was. Vulnerable people are being demonised and hard-won protections have been undermined by increasingly populist public discourse. We need trusted charities to step up and stand by them as a matter of urgency.
‘This column originally appeared in Third Sector News in July 2018’ at the bottom.