By JSL, 2015 ReFrame Mentee, National People’s Action
Like a lot of the other movement communicators I know, I kind of fell into it. Sure, there are some kids out there who grow up dreaming of doing communications, but I wasn’t one of them.
I love ideas. So I studied philosophy on the south side of Chicago, where I found some awesome community organizing, which I also now love. Having some writing skills from graduate school, it wasn’t long before I was drafting op-eds and writing sample tweets.
Today, I work with National People’s Action (NPA) because it’s an organization that takes ideas just as seriously as action. We are committed to changing the narrative as a key part of our strategy for making long-term system change. While traditional person-to-person organizing is vital to that mission, so is strategic communications. As someone who fell into communications, I’ve often struggled to translate our goals into reality. Caught up in the day-to-day bustle of press releases, e-blasts, and Facebook posts, it’s easy to jump from tactic to tactic and loose the overarching strategy.
That’s why Reframe was such a transformative experience. It connected me to a wonderful community of communicators from different parts of the movement, plus it gave me the space, time, and resources to think about and learn from others how to do strategic communications. I want to share five of the big lessons I’m taking away from ReFrame.
1. It’s All About Asking the Right Questions
Before you can do strategic communications, it’s important to know how to think strategically about communications. During ReFrame, I was introduced to some amazing tools from the Center for Story Based Strategy. Just since this summer, I’ve been able to use these tools with national staff and our affiliates at least five times to aid in crafting core narratives for campaigns.
But it’s not just the tools that are helpful. It’s how they’re changing the way I think and the questions I ask. Two of the biggest game changers are audience and assumptions.
It’s not that we’d never thought about these things before at NPA, but we weren’t necessary as intentional about asking the right questions when we were designing our communications. Now, we’re more regularly and explicitly posing the questions: Who are we trying to move? What underlying beliefs are we trying to shift?
2. It May Mean Doing Less, Not More
Being strategic means being realistic. When I first showed Joseph (my mentor) the communications plan I created for NPA, he said, “This looks great, have you hired some more staff so you can do all this stuff?” Strategic communications isn’t about doing more, it’s about identifying which opportunities we can take advantage of that will maximize our impact.
Over the course of the mentorship, I started asking myself more regularly what I’m doing and why. And I’m beginning to pose that question to my colleagues too.
So cute….3. Cute Animals Are Key
Well, I mean, this is just true. Throughout the mentorship, we returned again and again to cute animals in PowerPoint presentations. Who can resist a cat raising its paw to ask a question? Or two dogs dressed in lederhosen?
There is a deeper point here though. Movement work is hard work, it’s challenging work, and it’s exhausting work. Strategic communications doesn’t always mean serious communications – a mistake all of us make. We can’t forget to add some levity and fun to what we’re doing. We must do it in the spirit of joyous rebellion.
4. Changing The Narrative Requires Changing Organizations
I can’t do it alone. Sure ReFrame gave me some awesome tools, supported my leadership, and made me approach communications strategically, BUT changing the narrative requires changing the way organizations work. After all, communications is integrated with almost every aspect of an organization.
We’ve seen from the masterful use of communications on the Right over the last forty years to gain ground and push back against the major progressive victories in the 20th century (civil rights, women’s rights, etc.). Clearly effective communications is vital for making social change. A lot of our organizations are not set up to use communications strategically. We have work to do when it comes to integrating narrative change work into our organizing model.
5. Change Starts With Us
Strategic communications requires strategic communicators. The ReFrame Mentorship increased my confidence in my role as a strategic movement communicator. We need a lot more people to develop their leadership as strategic communicators.
Since the 2015 class of the ReFrame Mentorship wrapped up, I’m still caught in the whirlwind of prepping spokespeople, releasing statements, and finalizing twitter toolkits – but I approach the work with a newfound conviction that I can tackle these tasks more strategically and connect them more directly to our overarching goal of changing the narrative to change system. I’m the right guy for the job.
And I’m not the only one – our cohort of ReFramers is part of a growing new generation of movement communicators. We are changing the way we do this work and we are ready to make change in our organizations and in our movements so that we can wage the battle of big ideas – and win – from Jackson, Mississippi to San Francisco, California. Watch out, world, here we come!