Above is a graphic that illustrates TWO THINGS I often have a hard time explaining in communications strategy: how something can go “viral” without money or power, and the ratio of effort to audience.
There is nothing I hate more than working with someone to create something powerful that goes nowhere because of factors outside of our control.
Let’s say you’re working with someone who loves to write, working to “shift the narrative” on their issue or campaign. You and that person might decide on the “medium” of an opinion piece for your narrative shift goal: you want to include their expert policy knowledge AND stories from their lives that take a lot of emotional labor to share. That means the two of you are probably going to spend hours brainstorming, outlining, writing, editing, editing each other’s edits, and finally, getting the piece out into the world.
Who is actually going to see this?
And this last step, which seems like it could be the final and easiest step, is where many groups run into problems. Sometimes people will pitch their op ed to a specific group or newsdesk without a personal contact, where it might sit, unread, for the rest of eternity. Sometimes their op ed might get accepted, but without the editor feeling urgency, it might run long after it’s relevant for the campaign. Sometimes, it might even get published — but because the outlet or the group either doesn’t promote the piece or doesn’t have much traffic to begin with, no one ever really sees the piece that you spent hours and hours crafting.
Almost always when it comes to narrative shift work, you want as many people as possible to freaking read it.
I’m usually pretty hardcore about goal + audience + medium specificity, so I could caveat this and say, “as many people as possible in your strategic audience” or “as many people who will scare your target as possible” and so on, but WHATEVER. Unless you’re working with some deeply powerful influencer or on a really popular topic, your audience #s are a major priority (and if you’re doing that… maybe you should say something about rent control).
Okay, let’s get back to the chart. Here it is again:
The arrows indicate the size of the audience you can reach (it goes up), and the other arrow is your locus of control** (how much power do you have to make sure this reaches that audience?).
You have the greatest locus of control re: your own social media channels, accounts, and email lists, even if your audience is smaller than say, the Chicago Tribune’s. (we will come back to this).
You have a similar level of control over the social media/email accounts of others in your network/working on the same issue/etc. Obviously you can’t force them to post or share anything you create, but you can at least ask them in a way that usually you can’t ask, again, the head of the Chicago Tribune to share/post your content.
But wait! Now we’re at local media — which could be a lot of different things: literal local media like Block Club Chicago or your local paper. In a more issue focused or digital context this might actually be something like “queer influencers” or “activists who care about immigration” etc.
Then, finally, we have national media — which again could be lots of different things, but in this context we’re basically saying “your campaign is viral”. You blew up, you’re in People Magazine, news cameras/crews are calling you nonstop, you’re probably freaking out. Your audience is WAY BIGGER than at the bottom of the pyramid, but this is usually the phase when people feel the least in control of their message, story, and even their time.
A lot of this chart is about power, so the labels are pretty variable. For some people, it may take NOTHING to get a person you’re working with on Rachel Maddow. Some of you have email lists w/ audience #s that FAR outstrip what I think of as “local media” outlets in Chicago.
The chart as a timeline:
So ignore the locus of control arrow for a minute.
There are four completely made up tiers of audience, that are arbitrary and rife with exceptions — their audience/reach goes up as you climb the pyramid.
To me, this chart as it stands is a TIMELINE of how groups with limited power make narrative shift a reality.
I think you could time this out for most successful “narrative shift” oriented movements/ideas: the phrase “prison abolition,” transgender justice, Black Lives Matter, more sinister examples like narrative shift promoted by extremist white supremacist groups (and I’m going to do that with a couple of examples in another post, let me know if you have an example!)
By creating this, I want to see if we can also see where certain movements/groups/ideology might start to get co-opted, or where people who have less stake in the material or policy change behind a shift in narrative might start using particular words while upholding ‘dominant narrative’ policy/
The chart as a guide:
Okay, but if you’re just trying to get this op ed out, there’s another way to look at this chart.
If you’re trying to change how people think about something, as many people as possible have to engage with YOUR narrative. That won’t happen if you’re putting tons of energy into writing a piece that never leaves an editor’s inbox.
When I think about the amount of work that I will spend on a particular project re: narrative shift, I try to keep this chart in mind.
I use it to weigh my desire for the biggest audience possible against my limited control over how a bigger audience might edit, use, or interpret our message.
This chart also brings up some questions:
Here it is, one more time.
None of this is set in stone.The media industry is asking some of these same questions re: audience, both as a reaction to crisis and as a new way to approach media. Some people have email lists w/ actual readers that FAR outstrip national media outlets. Two different people have told me stories about freak retweets/shout outs from Youtube/IG influencers that quadrupled their donation rates.
The world of media is evolving and changing so there are fewer distinctions between “organizing group” “media outlet” “digital activist”.
To me, this chart also raises an interesting question for movement groups/organizers.
If we want to change the narrative around SO MANY different messed up parts of our world, should we put more energy into building the numbers of our own audiences, channels, and lists and building the use of those lists for the people who read them?
This is a pretty leading question, so clearly I have an opinion. But I want to know yours!
Let me know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org
** I forgot that phrase until AFTER I made the graphic, so that arrow is less poetically called “Pain to get it there.”