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Communications as Critical Change Agent

By Suzana Grego

During the July 2016 AWNY Stages Summit in Chicago, the Skoll Foundation’s Director of Public Engagement & Communications Suzana Grego delivered a speech about her experiences working in human rights and what that taught her about the awesome power of communications to change the world.

I heard Vice President Joe Biden speak at the Aspen Ideas Festival earlier this month. He, like many others, was trying to make sense of today’s political turmoil:

“The financial crisis of 2008 left people feeling helpless. Nobody communicated with them about their fears and aspirations, to let them know what happened… We need to communicate to them: ‘I understand what you’re worried and concerned about.'”

The fear and consternation about the sad state of affairs in America today was palpable at the Festival. Many tried to diagnose it and suggest ways forward.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman characterized the disruption as being hit by “three simultaneous climate changes” since 2007: chaos in the markets, in mother nature, and in Moore’s Law, with science and technology changing faster than human beings can adapt.

And in the midst of the political turmoil, we’re also struggling to make sense of the racism, injustice, and violence we’ve seen in Louisiana, Minnesota, Texas, and too many other places.

Malik Aziz, deputy chief of police in Dallas, recently said on CNN: “We have devolved into some separatism… [Let’s] sit down at a table and say ‘How can we not let this happen again?’ and be sincere in our hearts.”

“We should be held accountable…[but] what we need now is a real engagement, a real dialogue with the community, that we can no longer be separate. We can’t divide ourselves.”

And Erik Wilson, deputy mayor of Dallas: “No conflict has ever been solved with violence. It’s always been solved with conversation. And that’s what we need to focus on.”

No one offered up a silver bullet, but they all pointed to communication and dialogue as the fundamental first step in addressing the complex problems we’re facing today.

Understanding the turmoil

A big piece of the problem is actually how we communicate and exchange information—or don’t. We increasingly live in isolated silos—call them information bubbles or echo chambers—that are powered by sophisticated media technologies. The recent controversy about Facebook curating liberal over conservative content reminds us that this is a very real issue that can impede real dialogue.

This siloing is also very apparent in my own social change world. I was surprised by the presence of conservatives at the Aspen Ideas Festival, but despite clear differences of opinion, I came away feeling like we need more—not less—diverse gatherings.

Over the weekend, a commentator compared the general atmosphere in America today to 1968. Then, turmoil, violence, racial strife, and the Vietnam War brought people to the streets because even ordinary citizens had hope that they could change things.

Without a doubt, today’s separated communities and siloed conversations make us feel less connected and less hopeful in our own abilities to break down walls.

And there’s another difference today. Over the years, many have warned us that as Americans, we still haven’t really understood or addressed the consequences of past disruptions and wrongs, starting with slavery, continuing through the civil rights era, the 2008 recession, climate change, disruptive technology, and now violence and extremism of all kinds.

One of the Skoll Foundation’s social entrepreneurs, Bryan Stevenson, head of the Equal Justice Initiative, explained it this way:

“We’ve never confronted the history of slavery and inequality. America created an ideology of white supremacy to make ourselves comfortable with slavery… That narrative was the great evil. The 13th amendment doesn’t deal with that narrative. The legacy of slavery has today evolved into terrible crimes and terrorism.”

His point is critical: narratives matter because they have the power to change lives, generation after generation.

I don’t think many of us would argue that we’re experiencing one of the most cognitively and emotionally dissonant periods we have in a long time—with big gaps between different “truths”, realities, and between what people profess to believe and what they actually do.

Unifying the conversation, coming together, in all of our diversity, to hear each other out, and together talk through how we might get to a better place… There is no more important first step.

Human Rights

My parents and I immigrated to the US from Croatia in the 1970s. In the early 90s, I’d just begun college when the civil war in Yugoslavia broke out.

What started as hate-based nationalism and political opportunism turned into ethnic cleansing and genocide. It was difficult to understand how this could happen in my country. No one I knew wanted to fight their neighbors, but as the war continued, ordinary people bought into politicians’ propaganda that these were inevitable centuries-old hatreds that had to be set right.

People’s lives were being torn apart because of greed, fear, and hatred. I wasn’t sure what I could do. Nearly everyone told me “Tell the world. We want the world to know what can happen.”

I started working for a human rights organization in Croatia, investigating violations, “naming and shaming” perpetrators, and writing reports.

Weeks, months, years unfolded and still there was no end to the suffering. Faced with undeniable proof that crimes had been committed, how could leaders deny and ignore them?

It was a scary realization: Investigating and reporting was one thing, but getting people—even good people—to care enough to do or say something, was yet another.

Who told the story and how it was framed and communicated was more important than the dense reports that ended up gathering dust on shelves. Justice didn’t only depend on the law; it also depended on its communication.

This threw me for a big loop. My purpose in life was to be a human rights lawyer so that I could fight injustice. Instead, I ended up taking a “detour” into PR and after a few years, left that world richer with skills and formative experiences.

It’s no coincidence that every job I’ve held since then has had communications for social change at its core.

International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ)

Change—even really big systemic change—is possible, even though it might sometimes “seem impossible until its done,” as Nelson Mandela, the man who spent nearly 30 years of his life in jail fighting apartheid, reflected.

But theres a long arc to changing perceptions, attitudes, behaviors, and policies; and an important sequencing of strategies in involving voices across sectors and demographics, in a common dialogue and collective action.

Tackling that long arc in a “short-termist” world was our biggest challenge at the International Center for Transitional Justice, especially when it came to catalyzing important national dialogues about the atrocities and hatreds that had steered countries into authoritarianism, corruption, and societal splintering.

A big part of my job was to develop the communications and public engagement strategies for truth and reconciliation commissions around the world.

We worked in close collaboration with commission officials and citizen representatives. We learned that it wasn’t just about “broadcasting” out information, as important as that was.

It was about engaging the broadest possible public in discussions about whether and how to create a truth commission; what shape the process would take; the community dialogue strategy; how to memorialize and archive the past to make it as accessible as possible; and perhaps most importantly, how to bake ordinary peoples visions into a new “social contract” that would help lead the country into a more peaceful and prosperous future.

This took a lot of time, effort, and patience, on everyone’s part. But it also took real leadership to lead a nation in that kind of a process.

Skoll Foundation

No organization I’ve worked with has understood the importance of storytelling and communications to social change more than the Skoll Foundation.

Since he was a little kid who read voraciously, Jeff Skoll, co-founder of eBay, believed in the power of a story well-told to change the world. Since coming on board, my mission has been to embed communications into everything we do—our core strategy, every program, every initiative, and every investment we make.

Why? Because our social entrepreneurs are in the business of trying to shift attitudes, behaviors, and policies, and communications lies at the heart of those. We’ve used storytelling and communication to inform, interact, inspire, and ultimately influence leaders in business, government, and civil society to work with social entrepreneurs to solve tough problems together.

There was also no way for our 40+ person foundation to scale our impact without making communications both a fundamental part of our core strategy—rather than just a supportive function—and also, a fundamental part of every staff member’s job.

We focused a lot of energy on amping up multimedia production of videos and virtual reality, and on building a robust infrastructure—a digital platform that would help scale our engagement with key influencers and fuel a marketplace of solutions.

At the same time, we’ve worked hard to amplify the compelling stories of our social entrepreneurs’ successes and struggles in trying to solve problems like lack of access to health, education, employment, and human rights.

The big win has been that target audiences are tuning in to the content and conversations longer, but more importantly, they’re engaging and taking more action on issues that matter.

In 2004, Jeff founded Participant Media to focus on informing and inspiring mainstream America—via Hollywood—to understand and take action on big issues like climate change, gun violence, and criminal justice. Spotlight winning this year’s Best Picture Oscar was a remarkable indication of how far issue awareness has penetrated our culture.

Conclusion

One of the more exciting trends we’re seeing is this authentic alignment between core business and communications catching on in the business world as companies begin to see that building their own sustainable supply chains—not just funding external sustainability initiatives—is not only good for the world, it’s good for business.

Unilever CEO Paul Polman often talks about how much more profitable the company’s social purpose brands are than their non-social purpose brands. He’s also committed Unilever to leading the way for multinational corporations to become benefit corporations and put the company’s financial goals on par with its social and environmental goals.

This authentic alignment between what you do and what you say fuels transparency and trust in consumers, clients, and citizens alike.

At this critical inflection point, we should remind ourselves that we have an important opportunity to seize—as individuals in our communities, as professional communicators, as citizens of this country, and as humans on this planet.

We need a new way of communicating that bridges divides instead of entrenching silos.

We can start by ringing alarm bells and drawing attention to what’s happening in our society today. We can lead by example, using inclusive, authentic communication in both our personal and professional lives. And we can empower others by giving them the skills, encouragement, and platform to raise their voices effectively and authentically.

Helping plant the seeds of solidarity and unity could be one of our biggest offerings to this great democracy as the first important step on the road to a future we can all look forward to.

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