Activism & Storytelling: Level 2

Mis­ter Fox drops in reg­u­lar­ly to vis­it with forest friends who run organ­i­sa­tions ded­i­cat­ed to this and that. Mis­ter Owl’s Wilder­ness Health Organ­i­sa­tion, the Asso­ci­a­tion of Unas­so­ci­at­ed Hedge­hogs for Few­er Roads and More Hedges, and his favorite, the Hen­house Lib­er­a­tion Army. He likes to help them tell bet­ter sto­ries so the entire forest under­stands who they are and what they do. Last week, he talked about how sto­ries can help make for bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Today he’s talk­ing about how sto­ry works at the lev­el of their organ­i­sa­tions.


Lev­el 2: Con­sis­tent organ­i­sa­tion­al sto­ry­telling solid­i­fies your iden­ti­ty and makes social move­ments more effi­cient.

An organ­i­sa­tion with a strong sto­ry can use that sto­ry to design and select its pro­gram­me, to test its com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and to be crys­tal clear to its audi­ences about who it is and what it stands for. Char­i­ty: Water’s founder Scott Har­rison tells a beau­ti­ful sto­ry, of how he set out with the twin mis­sion to bring safe clean drink­ing water to every­one on the plan­et and to rein­vent char­i­ty for a new gen­er­a­tion. That he man­aged to get that twin mis­sion right into the organisation’s name is even more impres­sive.

Sto­ry can illu­mi­nate or mask, of course. Coca Cola doesn’t tell you or its staff “We’re a face­less, amoral cor­po­ra­tion look­ing to max­i­mize prof­it from sell­ing sug­ared water.” That’s not a good sto­ry. So instead, they’re the peo­ple who sell hap­pi­ness. What makes Coca Cola a behe­moth brand is the con­sis­ten­cy with which they apply their sto­ry: every ad they make, every design deci­sion about their pro­duct is made with that sto­ry in mind.

When we were run­ning the “Green my Apple” cam­paign at Green­peace, our sto­ry was that we were Mac Fans, and dis­ap­point­ed that Apple includ­ed tox­ic chem­i­cals in its pro­duct line that were poi­son­ing kids in Chi­na who were pro­cess­ing e-waste. We expect­ed bet­ter of such an out­ra­geous­ly great com­pa­ny. Our tag line was “I love my Mac, I just wish it came in green.” Main­tain­ing the sto­ry con­sis­ten­cy on that cam­paign was hell, because Green­peace had a long com­mu­ni­ca­tions his­to­ry of vocal­ly bash­ing evil cor­po­ra­tions. But we were aim­ing for the then-niche Mac fan base and want­ed to play cho­rus mas­ter in a song that Apple would hear. It had to be sung by Mac fans, not by envi­ron­men­tal­ist out­siders, and it had to dri­ve a speci­fic pol­i­cy change, not dri­ve Apple into a defen­sive cor­ner. It worked, but we played a con­stant game of whack-a-mole with actions and com­mu­ni­ca­tions that didn’t sound like they came from a place of love for the brand.

If the Green­peace sto­ry is “A bil­lion acts of courage can spark a brighter tomor­row,” that implies a lev­el of hope and opti­mism which should be obvi­ous in every piece of com­mu­ni­ca­tions Green­peace puts out there. It implies a spot­light on peo­ple pow­er that needs to be relent­less. And a focus on courage that isn’t option­al. I recent­ly was asked my opin­ion about the video below.

It’s beau­ti­ful­ly shot and evoca­tive­ly scored. It’s mov­ing and does what it set out to do: link the forest fires in Tas­ma­nia to cli­mate change. But if you cov­ered up the logo at the end, would you know this is a Green­peace video? Not like­ly. It’s got noth­ing unique to Greenpeace’s organ­i­sa­tion­al sto­ry. There’s no courage, just an appeal. It could be any one of dozens of organ­i­sa­tions con­cerned with cli­mate change. It’s not a bad video at all: but the secret of a strong sto­ry is to tell it again and again and again. And to tell your unique sto­ry with every­thing you put your brand on. A video that tells the sto­ry of bil­lion acts of courage looks more like this:


The sto­ry of a Bil­lion Acts of Courage is retold in the the sto­ry of activist Eva Resnick-Day, who thanked Hillary Clin­ton for her vow to tack­le cli­mate change, but asked her if she was will­ing to take the coura­geous stance that Green­peace has asked all US pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates to take, and for­swear fund­ing from the fos­sil fuel indus­try. The defen­sive respon­se of HIllary, “I’m so sick of the Sanders cam­paign telling lies about me,” pre­sum­ing this was a polit­i­cal­ly moti­vat­ed attack, spoke vol­umes about a guilty con­scious — or a recog­nised weak­ness in the con­sis­ten­cy of her words and actions.

toblerone (1)

A good organ­i­sa­tion­al sto­ry is like Toblerone: its shape is recog­nis­able at any scale. See it whole in the pack­age? You know it’s Toblerone. Break off a piece? You know it’s Toblerone. A good organ­i­sa­tion­al sto­ry helps shape your com­mu­ni­ca­tions AND your pro­gram­me by help­ing you focus on what your organ­i­sa­tion is unique­ly good at, and leav­ing oth­er stuff to those who are good at that. A good organ­i­sa­tion­al sto­ry has enough points where it can flex that you can tell it in a bil­lion dif­fer­ent ways, through a bil­lion dif­fer­ent media, and still see the spine of the orig­i­nal sto­ry.

There’s a tremen­dous temp­ta­tion in deal­ing with com­plex issues like cli­mate change to want to be pre­scrip­tive about the entire­ty of the prob­lem. The deep­er you dig into any issue, the fur­ther the roots reveal them­selves. It’s some­times hard to remem­ber that there are allies and abun­dance in the world that you can tap into, and that no one organ­i­sa­tion is ever going to crack it alone. In any move­ment where you need a wide diver­si­ty of strength, skills, and per­spec­tives to move for­ward, you need a divi­sion of labour. All of us work­ing for a bet­ter world need to be clear­er about what our unique piece of the solu­tion is, what our chap­ter looks like in the big nar­ra­tive of change, and then fierce­ly live that sto­ry.

This is the third installment of a series on Activism and Storytelling featuring Mister Fox, the alter ego of Tommy Crawford and Brian Fitzgerald and the trickster spirit at work in their creative agency, Dancing Fox, Ltd. 
If you’d like to follow along, you can subscribe here to get new entries via email.
I’ll be running a day-long workshop in Story as Theory of Change in Oxford March 8th 2016 Berlin on October 5th 2016.  London March 21st 2017  Sign up! If you know an activist, artist, or entrepreneur who you think would benefit from some story mojo, nudge them toward that link or share this blog. The story that we can change the world gets stronger every time it’s retold.

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