Listening to just ten seconds of the song ‘Yorktown’ about a 1781 battle during the American War of Independence, I was again in awe of the sheer originality of the hit musical Hamilton. It powerfully succeeds in taking the complex political history a US founding father, and links it cleverly to contemporary issues around identity and race. And it has done this in such an astounding and creative way – through hip hop and rap – that it has connected with brand new audiences, and become a cultural phenomenon in the UK and US.
This proves that with the right innovation, you can tell complex stories in a compelling and engaging way which reaches new people using both emotions and facts.
Next February, the International Civil Society Centre will convene civil society communicators at our Innovators Forum to find similar creative inspiration in response to growing social and political divides. What works best in ‘reframing the narrative’ in the context of populist and nationalist agendas? Here are three strategies civil society organisations (CSOs) can use, which we will explore in practical terms at the Forum:
Dejusticia’s human rights playbook for ‘experimentation. It stresses the need for formal CSOs to build ‘connective action’ – not just ‘collective action’, with social movements, online and grassroots activists, think tanks, and other actors responding to these issues. CSOs need to strengthen horizontal collaboration with these peers, create transformative relationships and effective mobilisation both on and offline, and find connective messages which ‘cut through the clutter’ in a crowded and fragmented social media environment.
Spaces are needed to bring together these diverse stakeholders, with their range of messages, tactics and experiences, to explore innovation and reinvention in narratives and strategies which can resonate with new constituencies and engage the ‘moveable middle’. This collaboration could generate ideas and identify ‘copycat’ lessons which can be deployed in different contexts, perhaps as successfully as populist movements have learned from each other. This is our hope for the Forum.
ICSOs speak out against the negative consequences of globalisation around the world, but not in ways which connect with domestic audiences who feel they are also economic losers from this process. Some people may also perceive international CSOs as symbols or even ‘advocates’ of globalisation. Stronger and more authentic storytelling by these organisations can counter populist challenges that they are part of ‘the establishment’ or don’t legitimately represent grassroots interests. Amnesty’s Thomas Coombes highlights that CSOs should better articulate the stories of individual ‘everyday heroes’ who have either gone on a journey of understanding to change their assumptions and prejudices, or are easier for people to identify could well be them, if circumstances were different.
The European Liberal Forum (ELF)’s ‘Toolbox Against Populism’ for political campaigning notes how, alongside emoting fear, populist parties have been able to portray their leaders as trustworthy and hard-working. In contrast, where are the public messages about the civil society leaders working diligently to build bridges in this space? One inspiring example (and a case study in Dejusticia’s playbook) is the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union’s total reinvention of its communications strategy, which involved ‘[telling] its own story about its values’, profiling its staff, and highlighting personal stories of its clients. There could also be a broader opportunity here to profile young civil society leaders responding to populist movements around the world.
Thomas Coombes’ blog also makes a compelling case that, ‘at a time when politicians are shameless’, traditional ‘name and shame’ approaches to communication no longer suffice. Rather than highlighting threats and triggering fear responses, new narratives need to communicate opportunity and motivate through hope. CSOs must promote a positive vision of the society we want to live in, which is so evocative and compelling that people can easily picture it mentally, and depictions of communities already benefitting from inclusion, diversity and stability.
One key factor driving domestic populist attitudes is the perception of key economic resources, such as jobs, as being under pressure. Yet some scenarios of the future foresee a world of abundance, not just scarcity, such as Peter Frase’s book ‘Four Futures’. Can CSOs still communicate potential futures of abundance, alongside the calamities of climate change and growing inequality? And can they shift societal conversations about the future of work away from short-term focus on migrants and jobs, towards collectively shaping how we will live with automation?
These may be some pointers to help ICSOs better portray what they are ‘for’ and connect to audiences through positive emotions and visions for the future. This must be done without oversimplifying the complexities of identity, history and politics. Hamilton shows how this can be done if you innovate in the right way. Join us in February to explore this further!