By Bruce S. Trachtenberg
I’ve been working in the field of social change communications for a long time, and over the years I’ve seen various efforts to measure – even define – success. Then, just the other day, while attending the frank2015 conference, an annual gathering focused on public interest communications, I heard a speaker say the following:
Success in public interest communications starts when people say ‘OMG this is important!’
It’s hard to argue that point because, without some recognition or acknowledgment that what people are hearing, seeing or being asked to respond to “is important,” there’s not much more to say after that. We need what we’re saying to be considered important if we’re going to make progress toward taming global warming, advancing the marriage equality cause, closing the gender gap, fighting obesity, and the myriad other battles waged daily to make the good greater for as many as possible.
So, how do you make people know what you say is important?
Perhaps, not surprisingly, there is no single answer. Just lots of pathways, guidance and suggestions – much based on practice and a growing amount of new knowledge coming from researchers who are studying how people receive information and process messages, what works, what doesn’t, as well as what merits more investigation.
That’s the role frank plays – to be a convener, connector and, yes, cheerleader for using communications to advance social good. The annual conference, of which last week’s was number two, brought together a rich mix of practicing communications professionals from nonprofits, foundations, think tanks and consulting firms, as well as journalists, artists and academics, among others.
Any effort on my part to tell you what was “important” about what people said or heard at frank, would barely do justice to the depth of insights and wisdom around which the conversations centered. Because of the strong desire to address how to use communications effectively to advance social change, there was a conscious effort to explore the topic through a range of lenses: practitioner, academic and even observer.
The takeaways from frank were many, and much of it thought-provoking and both actionable and applicable. But don’t just take my word for it. Instead, pour yourself a cup of coffee or tea, pull up a chair and see for yourself. Below are just a sampling of some of the talks. The full selection is here.
A Bottle of Soda Will Cost You Five Miles
A researcher in obesity in vulnerable populations at John Hopkins, Sarah Bleich demonstrates how information about calories can encourage young people to drink fewer sodas. It started with a simple experiment at home when Bleich asked her husband, “do you know how long you would have to run on the treadmill to burn off that hamburger?” In a study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Bleich demonstrated a successful method to make adolescents aware of what they’re consuming.
Why Myth Busting (Usually) Doesn’t Work
Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth looks at why myth busting, vital in today’s viral information age, so often fails. Using research as the founder of a fact-checking website and a social scientist, he looks at misperceptions of all sorts, from President Obama’s birthplace to vaccination opponents. Nyhan illustrates that the problem is more complex than simply providing facts. Emotions and identity complicate people’s perceptions of what they define as the truth.
So This Climate Walks Into a Bar
How can we use “humor and storytelling to fend off the apocalypse?” Chip Giller of Grist wants us to get serious. Tracing his own experiences trying to raise awareness about climate change and environmental damage, he realized that people weren’t responding to urgent, strident messages about impending doom. (They also could not be motivated to care about faraway wildlife.) “If we want to get people to attend to these things and wake up and act, we need to communicate differently.” In 1999, Giller founded Grist. In this talk, he shares his wisdom and challenges us to use humor to highlight complex and crucial issues.
You Say You Want a (Storytelling) Revolution
Mark Little, founder of Storyful: “I’m in the company of people just like myself, who believe not just in the possibility of change, but I think – I hope – you all agree with me that we’re living in a revolution.” Little believes that we’re living in a moment when the elites are no longer telling us what’s going on. This, Little believes, has transformed all of human culture. He shows examples of both hope and fear that accompanies such cataclysmic change – with detours into his daughter’s Instagram feed.
The Power of Satire
Sophia McClennen talks about the role that satire has been playing in changing politics. Satire and politics have always gone hand in hand, but today, satire is even becoming a primary source of news and information about political issues – particularly for Millennials.
Brain Porn Communications
A partner at Goodwin Simon Strategic Research, Amy Simon brings 20 years of political experience to her work as a pollster and communications strategist. In what might be the most provocative frank talk title in the bunch, Simon made good on her promise to capture “everything you need to know about how to conduct innovative research that develops empathetically attuned persuasive communication for social change.” In other words, she shows us how to close the gap between the public and advocates that often exists in social change communications. As Simon cautions us in her talk, be sure to put brain porn communications fully in quotes before you click search on Google.
Learn more about frank here.
Bruce S. Trachtenberg is Executive Editor of frank. In earlier years, he served as Executive Director of the Communications Network