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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