Abigail Scott Paul: Context is vital to anti-poverty storytelling

Campaigning based on an individual's struggle can backfire by leading the audience to blame that person or their family for their predicament, writes the deputy director of communications at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Abigail Scott Paul
Abigail Scott Paul

We’ve known for a while that myth-busting "killer stats" about social issues don’t generate the light-bulb moments in the public’s mind that we hope for. In fact, research shows that these statistics serve only to reinforce the myths they are meant to discredit.

And we now live in a world where "alternative facts" are used to counter official statistics, leaving a confused and sceptical public. If evidence is not enough to shift public opinion or increase the political saliency of an issue, what else can campaigners do?

Enter storytelling. There currently seems to be an obsession with storytelling in the third sector. It’s no surprise: the media craves the case study that can provide the human story behind the dry stats and figures of a research report. A killer stat married with someone’s real-life experience makes a good package.

But is this effective campaigning on an issue? Does it lead to a shift in public opinion or, even better, does it lead to public demand for an issue to be solved? The fact that poverty figures in this country have stayed broadly the same for the past 25 years suggests that anti-poverty campaigners might be missing the spot.

Empathy is often used in campaigns to try to trigger action on social issues. The logic is that, if our audience can connect emotionally with someone’s personal story, they will demand action and maybe they will donate to a charity or sign a petition. This might work when the audience is already "warm", but if we are trying to convert sceptical audiences, this tactic might backfire and push people further away from the ideas and solutions we are trying to promote.

The problem with a story focused on an individual’s struggle is that it channels the audience’s attention towards solutions in which that person can find their own way out of the situation. Worse still, these individually framed stories can lead people to blame the individual (or their family) for the situation they find themselves in. This is clearly not the intended effect.

What does work?

Personal stories need to be framed in ways that focus attention on how an individual’s choices and experiences are affected by the context and the environment that surround them. Audiences are then better able to see that solutions lie in addressing and improving the context through better policies, not in "fixing" the individual. As Moira O’Neil from the FrameWorks Institute, a Washington DC-based organisation that aims to enlarge the communications capacity of the non-profit sector, argues: "We need to widen the lens of our storytelling."

The best example I can think of is Jimmy McGovern’s recent BBC One drama Broken. The decisions of the characters in the series are presented in ways that make the contextual constraints on choices and behaviours clear, powerful and unarguable. They face struggles not because they are fundamentally bad or good, but, like all of us, they are doing their best to get by in the face of structural problems. This is a refreshing counter to the usual "deserving" versus "undeserving" storyline, which focuses narrowly on an individual’s effort and choice.

In the first couple of episodes, a single mum is shown to steal from her employer and defraud the benefit system. The character has made bad choices, but the audience is afforded a view of the context that has led her to make these decisions: a low-paid job that doesn’t provide sufficient income to feed her three children, and the welfare system she turns to after she loses her job does that not provide the safety net she expects. Context is clearly a character in this story: in this case, it is the "bad guy" in the narrative.

Telling contextual stories is much harder than producing another account of a poor individual who has made it through by virtue of their morals, hard work and wise choices. We need to work with storytellers to craft more effective narratives for social change, narratives that provide context, unpack problems and, crucially, explain solutions in ways that get us out of the tug-on-your heartstrings "deserving" way of thinking about poverty.

Abigail Scott Paul is deputy director of communications at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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