Increasing interest in an old story

It’s the eternal complaint I get from my colleagues and clients: “It’s an old story and nobody will listen to us talk anymore about it.” People particularly like to blame the media for not paying attention to “old” stories, but they also point the finger at politicians and donors (cue “donor fatigue,” which most advocacy officers probably say about 10 times a day).

I appreciate that it’s frustrating trying to get a meeting with a politician about a 10-year-old conflict where 200,000 people are still suffering but nobody has a solution and the politician’s country has already spent 40 million Euros trying to help those people. I also appreciate that some media don’t cover the stories I might like them to cover. Yes, less Lindsay Lohan and more Aung San Suu Kyi would be nice in general.

But when people complain to me about how they can’t stir up interest in an old story, I usually tell them to point that wagging finger at themselves. Improving your own advocacy and communications on an old story won’t guarantee you a headline and a policy shift, but I can also guarantee nearly every person I talk to with this problem that they can improve their own work.

Make me want to listen

The bottom line is: is your story compelling?

Does it make an average human being want to listen and take action? Is it fresh and therefore sparks curiosity, or is it a known story but acute and pressing?

The other crucial factor that is even more often ignored than the self-critical assessment of how well you’re telling your story are your relationships. All those people you’re trying to get to listen to you — how well do you know them? Do they like and respect you? (Yes, honest to goodness “liking you” plays a real factor.) What problems do they face in their jobs and lives and do you understand those problems?

Don’t do it like this

To illustrate this I’ll share a story about a group of NGOs I worked with who wanted to ramp up their advocacy to increase the international community’s efforts to alleviate the suffering resulting from a multi-year armed conflict.

In the course of that project, I spoke for over an hour with one person in particular who ranted about how “they” just didn’t care: the politicians, the bureaucrats, the diplomats, the donors, the media, the public. I asked her what she was saying to those people to try to get them to care. She responded with phrases that talked about the “affected population” and “humanitarian space” (demonstrating yet again that it is possible to speak entirely in jargon!). She said she knew it wasn’t fresh and new, but she hadn’t had time to revise the lines because she’d been busy. I asked her if she had good, longstanding relationships with her key targets in the government and the media, the kind where she could just say her first name and they’d know it was her. The kind where they’d have a coffee with her and hear her out even if they couldn’t run with her messages that day. She said no, because they “didn’t care.”

I think my notes during this conversation went something like this: “oh dear.”

Tips on increasing interest in an old story

To avoid a long list of negatives (“don’t do this, don’t do that”), here are some ways to drum up interest when your story is old and interest is low.

  1. Take a hard look at what you’re saying. Would your nice Aunt Debbie want to listen? By that, I mean an ordinary person with an average level of intelligence, interest and compassion for others. To get Aunt Debbie to listen to you you’d probably have to make it a human story about human beings, right? It’s about people!I’ve had some policy wonks tell me that for policy you need to speak in jargon. Occasionally, in a very specific situation, that may be true. But generally that is not the situation, and even if the person you’re talking to understands all that jargon, you often won’t win extra brownie points for dropping every jargony phrase in the book.
  2. What you’re saying either has to be either:a) new and therefore sparks curiosity;
    b) not new but so interesting/grave/exciting that people listen.Caveats on both of these:

    a) Beware of people who tell you that delivering bags of rice is new and therefore sparks curiosity. I don’t care that you delivered bags of rice; I care how that makes a difference in the lives of the people who ate the rice. That is to say, not everything that is “new” is “news”. If you can’t figure out what is the difference, ask a media professional or a journalist sometime.

    b) There is a fine line between raising awareness around a serious issue that deserves interest, and exploiting other peoples’ suffering for your own benefit. In the non-profit sector, some people justify crossing this line by saying that to break through in the media, they need to push out horrifying pictures, and that’s the only way to bring about the money and political attention to make the situation change for the better. Other people say they got the person’s consent to run that cringeworthy photo so it’s ok.

    It’s a consequentialist argument and I do see some merits to it, but it also breaks what for me is a cardinal rule about respecting human dignity. If you have to cross that line to get the world’s attention, you’re not as good at your job as you think you are. There are better ways to get people’s attention that don’t require exploitation. Not to be crass, but it’s a bit like being an actress: you can run out on the party circuit and flash your panties and indeed you’ll get attention. Or you can work steadily on some excellent projects and gain lasting respect for your achievements. Please do go for the latter.

  3. This leads me to point three: relationships, relationships, relationships. A great advocacy and communications professional has his targets — the people whose actions he tries to influence — on speed dial. Like I wrote above, they like him and respect him enough to have a coffee with him and hear him out on his old story. And when they see an opening to take action on this old story, they’ll take it, because they’ve been constantly updated and inspired to take action by this terrific professional. That’s what I call a job well done!
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