Spitfire Strategies

300 Public Interest Communicators Walked Into a Bar – No, it’s frank2016

Last week, I participated in frank, an annual gathering that Spitfire supports to bring together movers and shakers who use strategic communication to drive positive social change. Trends and best practices constantly evolve as change makers test new campaign strategies, develop new technologies and conduct new research. frank focuses on building a community that connects public interest communicators including researchers, students and practitioners so that they become even more effective in their work – and it does so in an approachable, fun way that feels as comfortable as your neighborhood bar.

Over the three-day gathering, more than 30 inspiring speakers distilled their insights into short talks – check out the videos available online. Here are just a few of the highlights.

Want to change public opinion? Use humor – if it’s actually funny. Caty Borum-Chattoo from the Center for Media and Social Impact showed how comedians are the latest sources for news. Remember when President Obama appeared on Between Two Ferns to ask young people to sign up for the Affordable Care Act? Traffic to HealthCare.gov increased by 40 percent. Humor also can be a powerful method to change public opinion, because it’s much harder to dislike someone who you think is funny. Comedy series featuring gay couples, such as Mitch and Cameron from Modern Family, have contributed to the decline in opposition to gay marriage. But she warned: don’t let strategists write comedy. Instead, work with comedians to craft comedy that will engage audiences.

Want your followers to take action after liking your post? De-emphasize morality. Social scientist Yu-Hao Lee from the University of Florida talked about his research on slacktivism and demonstrated how social media campaigns can have the unintended effect of reducing activism. When an organization tells its members that they are “good people” for signing a petition, those people are less likely to take action later because they believe they’ve already fulfilled their moral obligation to help. To avoid this situation, Lee advised strategists to de-emphasize morality in the ask, and instead urge people to take action based on the issue, situation or context.

Want your target audience to empathize with your issue? Focus on an individual. Paul Slovic, a professor at the University of Oregon, talked about his 15-year project proving that people are more likely to empathize with an individual than a group. Statistics of mass murder or genocide, no matter how large the numbers, fail to convey the true nature of such atrocities. The numbers don’t spark significant emotion or feeling and thus fail to motivate action. However, when one person is killed unjustly and we hear about it, we react. For example, countless reports tell us that the death toll in Syria is more than 400,000 – a figure that hasn’t inspired the appropriate public interest in Syrian refugees. However, when the photo appeared of Aylan, the young Syrian boy whose body washed up on a beach, there was a spike in interest and action. The Swedish Red Cross, which has been helping Syrian refugees, reported steady donations of about $30,000 per day. When Aylan’s photo and story hit the news cycle, donations rose to $500,000 per day, and remained elevated for the next few days.

Want to reach viewers in a new and different way? Try virtual reality. Dan Archer of Empathetic Media showcased virtual reality software using the Oculus Rift that aims to tell news stories in an immersive new way. With the software, Archer took us on a virtual walk around the scene of Michael Brown’s death, demonstrating how Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Brown. While not all organizations can afford to send the Oculus Rift to the audience they want to influence, Archer does provide us a glimpse into possibilities of the future. The price of this technology will decrease, and for now, there’s Google cardboard, the company’s affordable answer to virtual reality.

I’m looking for ways to put these insights to work in the campaigns I work on at Spitfire. And I’m feeling inspired after spending three days with people, who like us, use communication to create a world that protects the environment and improves the quality of life for all people. I’m glad I walked into frank.

Until next year…

“This is a truly transformative program and there is no question that it is preparing leaders to be courageous communicators.”

- Colleen Bailey, Executive Director, The National Steinbeck Center

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