Here Rachel Mullen summarises the key points in “Communicating Values: A Values-Led Approach to Strategic Communication for Social Change”.
In our strategic communications for social change, there is a challenge for civil society organisations and campaigns to take time to reflect on how people make sense of a social issue, and consequently, how this informs their motivation to support a cause. The traditional thinking holds that when we are asked to consider an issue, whether it be homelessness, immigration, poverty, or climate change, we simply seek out the facts of the matter, rationally and objectively consider those facts, and then come to an informed understanding about the issue. In reality, however, the way in which we interpret information and make sense of an issue is more complex.
In this publication, I set out the case for a values-led approach to strategic communication for social change. The publication explores how our values operate and how our pro-social values are prioritised or suppressed and the implications of this for our strategic communication for social change. I also explore the use of frames, framing and storytelling to carry the values that will underpin progressive social change suggest practical tools for organisations and campaigns to adopt a values-led approach to their strategic communication, to engage and mobilise target audiences.
People are hard-wired for narrative rather than facts, and in attempting to interpret information received, people tend to look for the ‘story’ being told and whether this story rings true for them and resonates with their priority values. If the story rings true, it will generally be accepted as the ‘truth’, regardless of whether the facts utterly refute that ‘truth’.
Stories are a powerful means of engaging values, because the emotions on which stories draw are intertwined with our values. Stories have the potential to maintain the status quo or to disrupt the status quo. The status quo is disrupted when we engage audiences with stories of change that cause them to prioritise their pro-social values and suppress their self-interest values.
Neoliberalism is arguably the current dominant political meta-narrative, from which many stories of our current times are drawn. Underpinned by self-enhancement values of wealth, social status, and social power, the protagonists of the neoliberalism narrative consume, compete, and reject cooperation and community, in favour of an aggressive individualism. The neoliberal narrative has found its way into the language and approach of civil society: with the ‘activist’ replaced by the ‘social entrepreneur’ and the ‘participant’ by the ‘customer’, ‘client’, or ‘service user’.
If civil society is to disrupt and dislodge such dominant narratives, it will be necessary to tell new stories rather than simply challenging the current ones. Telling a new story of change is most effective when we take a values-led approach to our strategic communications.
Decades of empirical research on how our personal values work indicates that each of us holds a complex mix of values that motivate the pursuit of competing or complimentary goals: from pro-social and pro-change goals, to oppositional self-interest and social conformity goals. Research indicates that engaging people’s pro-social and pro-change values strengthens those values and aligned thinking and action and suppresses their pursuit of self-interest values. In addition, European and world-wide values surveys show that on average, people place higher importance on the pursuit of pro-social values than on values of self-interest: they just need encouragement to give effect to these values and an understanding that these values are shared.
This research offers interesting levers for the work of civil society to promote equality and fulfill human rights. Strategic communication comes centre stage in such an approach. It can be utilised to: build narratives to bring forward pro-social values; communicate in ways that engage people with pro-social values; and create a societal prioritisation of these values.