To activate our allies and isolate our opponents, we need to tell a compelling story about our campaigns. The fossil fuel industry and some decision-makers in our institutions tell their own stories: “we can survive extracting and burning fossil fuels,” and so on. Our side has the facts and figures to refute our opponents — but facts and figures aren’t enough.
Sometimes activists assume that because something is true, it will be meaningful to the people we’re trying to reach. Not true! To win the hearts and minds of our community, we need to tell meaningful stories.
Telling stories is especially important as our campaigns begin to escalate and break into the media. Conflict and escalation, from sit-ins to marches, can be mystifying for folks outside of the movement. If we want folks to join us in escalation, continue to recruit new members, and shift the “spectrum of allies” in our favor, we need to craft a compelling story before, during, and after we escalate.
Like good actions, good storytelling requires preparation and practice. Just as we plan out a broad campaign strategy, taking us from base-building to escalation to victory, we craft a narrative strategy for each phase of our campaign.
To revoke public support from the fossil fuel industry, we need to win the battle of the story. The public usually hears two different narratives — one from our movement, and the other from our opponents. Their story says that everything is okay, the industry and the government will take care of this crisis. Our story says that this crisis can only be solved if we break the power of the fossil fuel industry, which is incompatible with a just and stable future.
The battle of the story is a battle over whose narrative and values becomes the dominant narrative and values in society — our movement’s or our opponents’. We win by ensuring our story resonates with more hearts and minds than our opponents’ story.
Social scientist George Lakoff says “in politics, whoever frames the debate tends to win the debate.” So, what is framing? Let’s use an example. If a campaign to stop a pipeline from carrying oil across a lake is framed as a fight for “clean water” the press will ask politicians, “will you protect the right to clean water or not?” This framing of the issue is an advantage for the movement and a disadvantage for the industry. On the flip side, if the fight is framed as an issue of “jobs lost,” the press will ask, “will you kill the jobs this pipeline would create?” That frame is an advantage for the industry and a disadvantage for the movement.
Every argument, every message, every sentence, exists inside a “frame” that defines what is in the story and what is not. When we examine our opponents’ frames (for example, “divestment will hurt financial aid”) and see what their frame excludes (the climate crisis, social justice, etc.).
Six Elements of an Effective FRAME:
Frames the conflict on our terms
Reframes away from the opponent’s story
Accessible to our audience
Meme-able: encapsulated in memorable symbols and slogans
Emotional: connected to the real impact on people’s lives
Once we have constructed our core frames (incompatibility with a stable future, social and racial justice, etc.), we craft “messages” to actually use in our communications. Most messaging is literal talking points that we say or write verbatim. However, our messaging should always be reinforcing our core frames.
The 5 C’s of Good Messaging:
Concise: Go directly to the point.
Clear: Stark language. Leave no doubt about whose side you’re on.
Consistent: Repeat, repeat, repeat. Choose three core messages and use them over and over and over again.
Convincing: Make it compelling and meaningful. Connect your message to widely held values.
Contrastive: Draw the distinction between you and your opponent. Contrast your values.
Build your social media and online presence
Social media is key these days to both tell your story and build relationships with your supporters — and it’s only going to become a more crucial part of your work as a campaigner as time goes on. Get excited, then attack the internet!
This social media guide is a great place to start: