Insights | Philosophy

4 communications tropes holding back your political goals

Framing a narrative is difficult, necessary work. But it’s absolutely required to make some of the most important changes to civic life possible. Crafting a narrative message requires deep thinking, and the process almost always raises organizational questions that no amount of messaging can solve.

Perhaps that’s why—as communications and political consultants—we encounter so much bad conventional wisdom when it comes to how to communicate about our politics.

Here are four communications tropes we encounter across all types of clients and projects that, in fact, create barriers to desired political change. Like all tropes, there ‘s some truth to each, which is why these became passable common knowledge in the first place, but like all tropes, they should be examined more closely and nuanced when deployed.

1) “Make it viral!”

Virality is almost never a one-off phenomena. It’s a product of regularly posting content that constantly responds to what’s happening on the internet. You not only need someone who lives on the internet, but the organization or campaign needs to pay for that person to be on the internet. Given how many other communications—never mind organizational—priorities there are, this is almost always a poor resource allocation.

More importantly, a single piece of viral content does not a change make. In the best case scenario, a viral moment drives traffic once. Ideally, you’re overwhelmed with small dollar donations or action-takers. None of that is structural, replicable or reliable. Brands with millions of followers didn’t get there by accident.

Chasing virality is a luxury only a few in political advocacy can afford. On one hand, depending on what goes viral, you maybe end up with a list of people you didn’t have before that may or may not respond to future, regular communications. But what resources were spent getting there? And could that have been spent on building a list, albeit more slowly, that is more highly engaged and ready to take action every time you ask?

2) “Always tell personal stories”

Stories should always have personal stakes. No arguments there. They should convey real human impact, harm, and potential. Absolutely. However, personal stories as told by campaigns and organizations often fall into the trap of tokenizing and exceptionalizing an individual and/or reinforcing a narrative that requires a vulnerable population.

This is particularly true in donor communications. In those contexts, you want to prove change is not only possible but has already happened, and your organization was the catalyst to making it happen! It is so alluring to tell a change story of how a single individual or family or group lifted themselves out of a dark poverty towards a stable life filled with bright colors and good lighting. However, unless you have explicitly connected that story to the systems that limited that person, family or group’s choices, you have almost certainly, unwittingly reinforced a narrative where only a few—those with the gumption and a set of shining bootstraps—will thrive.

To tell good personal stories, you need a bulletproof narrative. What is the structural story you’re trying to tell? What systemic barriers produce bad outcomes for people? With what are we trying to replace them? If your organization’s position is that we can eliminate all hunger but the only stories you tell are of people who’ve lucked out of poverty, that is more than a narrative misalignment; it is a political problem that has to be resolved internally. More important than telling personal stories is deploying relatable messengers, spokespeople, individuals and families that tell stories that reinforce the elements of that larger narrative.

3) “Don’t repeat your opposition’s talking points!”

This is only partly true. The often forgotten second half of that piece of wisdom is the most important: Don’t repeat opposition talking points when communicating with persuadable audiences. Unless you’re a hotly contested electoral campaign, most of the time, you’re not talking to a persuadable audience. You’re talking to your people. You’re trying to get them to donate, contact their legislator, sign a petition, share a video. Which is to say, you’re building a base.

Base audiences already believe in your cause. They’re aligned on values and have heard the opposition messaging. What’s more, they get angry and all fired up when they hear the opposition because they know their argument is trash. They know the opposition talking points and, more importantly, they are already likely telling yours!

Unless you’re in an electoral campaign short on time and resources, you should almost always be spending your communications resources building your base. Your base is the best asset you have to win over persuadables. So repeat away. Get your people angry enough to argue with their racist uncles at Thanksgiving. Better yet, anger your base and give them an alternative message with which they can radicalize their cousins.

4) “There isn’t a villain on our issue, it’s the system at large!”

Look, there’s always a villain. Villains are necessary to crafting any political narrative. If you don’t highlight the individuals making bad choices that create the existential threat you’re trying to overcome—gun violence, climate catastrophe, the collapse of Western democracy, anti-Black racism and the carceral state—then it isn’t reversible. Without a villain, your audience will become mired in abstraction. Urgency deflates. The terribleness of everything will seem inevitable. Just like the big problem you’re trying to solve, this narrative problem is fixable: name names!

More often than not, when we encounter this pushback from clients, it comes from either 1) not having pushed the organizational analysis far enough or 2) the fear of alienating partners and collaborators. To that we say: alienate your opposition. Alienating your opposition requires courage. It will, undoubtedly, risk certain relationships. And that’s a decision point every organization has to make: what is more important—relationships or the work? And at what point do we compromise one for the other?

Like noted above, when framing a narrative (or building most political strategies for that matter), privilege building your base. Your base needs a bad guy doing bad things in the world that they can correct with the right policies.