I don’t often enthuse over cookbook solutions to major strategic questions, but this article that Sean Southey recommended on his Facebook page makes a lot of sense for those of us involved in promoting change:
8/01/2013 @ 2:05PM |2,708 views
The 5 Secrets Of Storytelling For Social Change
Editor’s Note: Jim Berk is Chief Executive Officer of Participant Media, a Los Angeles-based entertainment company that focuses on socially relevant, commercially viable feature films, documentaries and television, as well as publishing and digital media.
What we do is not new. There have always been socially relevant films that inspired us and spoke to the challenges of the time, movies that helped us understand important issues and thrust them into the zeitgeist—Hotel Rwanda, Norma Rae, Erin Brockovich, Gandhi. Films like this were and still are part of a studio’s slate, but what makes Participant unique is that socially relevant content is our entire focus.
Participant’s Founder Jeff Skoll believed that people, if inspired, and given the tools, would work to make the world a better place. Our strategy: to tell stories that illuminate the issues shaping our world and then invite the audience to become engaged.
Nine and a half years later, after 43 films, thousands of social action events, and, so far this year, over 15 million social actions completed through our digital platform, TakePart.com, we have empirical evidence that you can both entertain and accelerate positive social change. These learnings have happened over time. We have spent—and continue to spend—an inordinate amount of time working to understand what makes people get involved, what makes them interested in issues and how we can present the story in a way that is so meaningful that they raise their hand and say, ‘I want to do something. I have something to say.“
We have learned that lasting change occurs when people trust the source, believe they have the full story and make a personal connection. With this in mind we have refined five strategies to use entertainment to inspire and compel social change.
TELL A STORY & SHINE A LIGHT
It all starts with a good story. It’s how you establish an emotional connection. For us, the story is primary. Without this we will not move forward with a project, no matter how important the issue.
Within the context of a story you can integrate information, which not only make the story richer, but can also simplify a complex issue. Even though Contagion is a suspense thriller about a global pandemic, we grounded the story in scientific facts to do two things: add plausibility to the film’s premise and allow us to embed learning moments within the story.
If you want to get people to engage, you first have to get their interest.
Take an issue like climate change. The sheer volume of information and counter-information is overwhelming. Before An Inconvenient Truth was released, polls suggested that fewer than 30% of Americans believed global warming was a real issue. So our focus was to create a campaign that was an understandable distillation of an extremely complex issue and offer pathways for the audience to learn more and to take action. This approach also allowed us to continue the experience off the screen and take it into the community, the classroom and online. We created a downloadable curriculum that reached 180k educators in the United States. After the film’s release, six countries (England, Scotland, Czech Republic, New Zealand, Germany, Australia and Canada) incorporated the curriculum into their secondary schools.
We like to say that saving the world is a team sport. Partners are not just additive; they are essential and create an exponential effect. With our film Food Inc., we set out to pull back the screen of misinformation and misdirection and educate people about how agribusiness and our current food policy affect them. We also formed a coalition of over 100 partners to provide real-world actions people could take to make informed choices about their diet and nutrition. We distributed a curriculum to over 17,000 classrooms. In addition, 3000 high schools received discussion guides and DVD’s to continue the conversation. We still talk weekly to over half a million people in our food community on TakePart.com about issues related to the food industry.
With our documentary Waiting for “Superman,” we worked with over 200 organizations who care deeply about the issue of education in America, but did not necessarily agree on a single set of solutions. But that’s ok. To us, part of media literacy is insuring that all sides of the issue are represented. We used the film as a way for everyone to work together to propel education into the national conversation. In the end, our mission isn’t to get people to think a certain way, it’s to get them to just think!
With Countdown to Zero we targeted seven key states where Senators were unsure how they were going to vote to ratify the New Start Treaty. Their vote was the difference between passage and failure. Because they were given a specific action that spoke to a moment of decision and a tangible positive impact, people responded.
A Place at The Table examines the issue of hunger in America through the stories of three food-insecure individuals. The film was a way to introduce the fact that nearly 50 million Americans go to bed either hungry or not sure where their next meal is coming from. We knew we had to articulate disturbing information, much of which most people were unaware. So with a consortium of non-profits we co-created common messaging to demystify the stigmas around SNAP, designed and launched a national action center where anyone in the country could access both local and national resources to help themselves or to help others, and hosted community screenings across the country to facilitate conversations around this issue. Our goal? To help communities address food insecurity in their local markets.
The Visitor told the story of how many detainees have no access to representation at deportation hearings. Upon researching the issue, we found there was no database of case studies for lawyers to cite when representing a client. With law firm O’Melveny & Myers, we created a program to train lawyers to provide pro-bono representation, and with several non-profits created a national database of cases for lawyers to use for precedence research. To date we have trained over 250 lawyers.
SPEAK TO YOUR AUDIENCE
Sometimes the source material is so expansive that you have to research what your audience really knows and where you might have the biggest impact. With Lincoln we conducted original research to inform the focus of our education and action outreach. The findings told us that more than half of Americans think that Lincoln is one of our best Presidents, which is not necessarily surprising, but two-thirds said they knew little or nothing about the 16th President’s accomplishments. This information guided our decision to reach out to schools as the conduit to the younger generation. Working with our partners we created a discussion guide and provided both the DVD and curriculum to all 37,000 middle and high schools in the country.
Through feature films and the accompanying social action campaigns we have been able to tell stories in a big way, garner a great deal of media attention around issues and engage a large audience. This is why they will always be a core part of our business. However, films don’t allow us to continuously talk to our audience. This is what has fueled the creation of Pivot, our new socially minded television network for Millennials that launches in over 40 million homes on August 1st.
But again, before we went forward, we set out to understand the television marketplace and our audience and how they view content and process information. Most people are familiar with the demographic of Millennials, whom we like to call, ‘The New Greatest Generation’. They are now the largest and arguably most influential generation, but also the hardest to reach.
These 18-34 year olds are being shaped by both crisis and opportunity, 9/11, climate change and safety concerns—while in many cases still being supported by their parents. Millennials define success differently than other generations. When it comes to television, movies and all things media, they are looking for authentic, transparent, independent sources of information they can trust.
BE AUTHENTIC AND TRANSPARENT
Just as Participant is unique in its approach to the film business, Pivot will endeavor to be unique as well. What makes Pivot unlike any other channel is its unprecedented commitment to integrating media literacy into every element of the channel. We want our audience to be aware of and learn to consider the sources of information and media they consume, recognize their role as a source when producing or sharing content, and explore the trade-offs inherent in giving up personal information online. Working with organizations like the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), we are creating an on-going flow of programming specifically designed to inform, educate and inspire interest in this area. Pivot will also have a dedicated digital presence designed to expand the network’s initiative around consumption of news and information and sharing and production of content.
Simply, Pivot will integrate media literacy into the channel in ways not seen before in television—not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it serves our enlightened self interest. It’s not just storytelling that creates engagement and social impact; it’s understanding the information within the story and believing the source. This is why media literacy is so important to us.
If we get this right we can help empower millions of people to work towards a world of peace and sustainability. So the stakes are high.
Edward R. Murrow said it best: ‘There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference.’