On the Importance of Prominence in Creating Lasting Social Change
Salience (noun), the quality of being particularly noticeable or important; prominence.
Our work at Purpose is often focused around increasing issue salience. We have the privilege to partner with inspirational organisations that are addressing critical issues, from public health to the environment, and democracy to social justice. What we hear about the challenges they face is sometimes framed as their issue “not being high enough up on the political agenda” or that it “lacks the public awareness and support it needs”. When we explore these challenges more deeply, more often than not, we circle back to the central challenge that their issue lacks salience. As I reflect on the work I’ve been involved in over the past 20 years, salience comes into focus as being a critical goal that can be foundational to creating change.
The impact of communications strategies is often rationalised through the lens of increasing knowledge, shifting attitudes, and changing behaviour. I’ve seen how the term salience is used as a corollary for knowledge and awareness of an issue. But this isn’t accurate. Salience is more than that. It is the acknowledgement, both individual and collective, of the importance of an issue and the prominence that the issue has socially, economically, and politically. Recently, I’ve been thinking about an example from early in my career that, with the benefit of time, I can look back on and see how, at a systemic level, issue salience helped unlock change.
I was closely involved in the anti-slavery movement for 10 years from 2003 to 2013 as a co-founder and CEO of the MTV EXIT Foundation, an organisation that used the power of music and culture to increase awareness and prevention of human trafficking. Looking back, it’s really interesting to see how the issue gained public traction from the early 2000s through the mid 2010s via efforts like MTV EXIT, CNN’s Freedom Project, the launch of The Freedom Fund, and Walk Free’s Slavery Index, and a host of other storytelling and films, both documentary and narrative dramas, to name just a few. It even entered our cultural lexicon with Liam Neeson’s emergence as an ass-kicking, human trafficking ring-busting action movie icon.
Some of these efforts were specifically focused on addressing the issue, and some (as in films like Taken) were as an indirect result, culture imitating life. They all contributed to elevating the issue of modern-slavery in the public consciousness. It gave the issue importance and prominence: salience. One can argue that these collective efforts formed an enabling environment for the incredible impact we’ve seen, including the passing of Modern Slavery Acts across multiple countries, corporate efforts to remove slavery from supply chains, and increased resources for programmatic work from governments and philanthropy that is supporting survivors.
However, over the past few years, it seems that the issue has lost some of its salience. With the crises that have been hitting over that time, it is maybe not surprising that other issues have become more prominent. Perhaps, there has been a move within the anti-slavery sector to invest fewer resources in narrative building communications and storytelling, and to direct more focus to solutions like government policies and corporate accountability. If that is the case, there is a danger it misses the point. If we want governments and companies to continue to prioritise the issue, we need to ensure that it still has the prominence and feeling of collective importance across citizens, consumers, shareholders, employees and policy makers.
We neglect narrative work at our own peril. Stories are the current through which we understand the world, whoever we are, and whatever we do. It’s a muscle that all social impact organisations need and is a cornerstone of movement building. Why, then, do we see these cycles in emphasis on narrative and storytelling work? Is it simply just the patterns and trends of social and environmental issues, and the symbiotic relationship between investments from donors, media coverage, real world events, and public interest? Is it the fact that movements ebb and flow around moments?
I would argue that one reason movement builders and campaigners are unable to maintain a drum beat of narrative work is because they are unable to maintain the investment from their donors. And the reason for that is that we have not been good enough at understanding and articulating the impact we are having through narrative change work. So my challenge to practitioners out there is this: get better at measuring impact. We have realised this gap in our own work and have been investing in growing our Impact, Measurement, and Learning capability across the world. Here are a couple of resources that might help:
- ORS Impact published this great report earlier in 2021 that provides fantastic insight into how to measure narrative change and also an index of available tools.
- Purpose has developed a Public Engagement Toolkit that helps break down different levers that contribute to creating political cover with tools to guide your work.
And for those investing in narrative change work, my challenge is to stay the course. Not every piece of content goes viral, not every experiment in storytelling works, and even when things do work, they are mostly fleeting moments in pop culture and the news cycle.
Originally published at https://www.purpose.com on January 14, 2022.