(Feednet 5): What does ‘un-cooptable’ narrative shift look like?

Updated: Jan 11, 2019

key questions:

+ wtf is ‘narrative shift’?


+ can you actually measure ‘narrative shift’?


+ is it possible to create ‘un-cooptable narrative shift?’ is that a worthwhile goal for organizers/anyone?


+ why does Rahm Emanuel have a podcast and should this concern us?

The other day my barber was telling me a story about a woman they knew: this woman, also a barber, cut hair for 40 years but never learned how to use a buzzer.


My barber’s takeaway: “You can suck at your passion for your whole life if you never take the time to learn to do it right.” Damn.


‘Organizing communications’ (or if you’re really feeling yourself, ‘movement communications’) is not exactly like hair styling — for one, it is usually a lot more pretentious.


But since ‘organizing communications’ is a skill set transplanted from corporate PR, only loosely a genre of organizing, communicators on the left as a whole could be ‘sucking’ at it without any indication that we’re doing anything wrong. (With the exception of hideous societal inequity, complete decimation of our planet, and white supremacy so blase that corporate benemoths don’t even bother to pretend they’re fighting it anymore.)


Enter ‘narrative shift.’ (Please enjoy the stock photos that appear when you Google Image search ‘narrative shift’).

If you feel 110% confident that you know what ‘narrative shift’ is, godspeed.


But whenever I hear the phrase ‘narrative shift’ I feel skeptical.


A cool thing about people power is that when enough people are talking about a certain idea in a different way, they can shift reality — or at least, the story about that idea, which can be meaningful enough to shift reality.

#BlackLivesMatter, #NoCopAcademy, #NoDAPL, Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black, ‘drop the i,’ a thousand other powerful campaigns with and without hashtags, have shifted the narrative.


Or at least, we think that we know that they shifted the narrative.


Or I mean, they probably shifted the narrative.


Or I don’t know, I heard about all these things on CNN so — yes? Narrative shift accomplished?


We have a lot of ‘sort of’ measurements of narrative shift happened, or ways that we think we know that the narrative shifted: the Chicago Sun Times started writing about prison abolition in earnest, Chance the Rapper is rapping about getting rid of Rahm, only the most fucked up right wing outlets refuse to say ‘undocumented’ nowadays, and ‘real’ reporters don’t laugh when you tell them your pronouns anymore.


Sometimes we only know we shifted the narrative when smaller scale material things happen: reporters start calling us more regularly, a hashtag your group has been using gets mentioned on a random tv show, someone who was in the newspaper talking about how they can’t find affordable housing gets affordable housing (through a thoughtful contact rather than a decisive structural change), or our moms finally started to ‘get it' after Laverne was on The View.

No one ever wrote ‘be able to have a less depressing conversation about my identity with my family’ or ‘get reporters to call me back’ as campaign goals, but it doesn’t mean these aren’t metrics of social change.

Without the resources or pre-planning to create a set of metrics through which we evaluate narrative shift, these can be our key (and only) indicators of narrative shift, simply because we don’t have any other metrics to go by. They’re not the goal of ‘narrative shift,’ in the big picture sense of the word. But without meaningful ways of measuring that shift (beyond money raised/people ‘absorbed’), they are all we got to say ‘hey, we did something!’ when we don’t set clear, effective goals.


Plus, barriers to creating real ‘narrative shift’ metrics aren’t always about resources. If, after decades of quiet local organizing, your action, hashtag or media moment goes ‘viral,’ (international, millions of hits, type viral) — what metric are you even supposed to track to see if you ‘shifted the narrative’? Facebook likes?

I’m more interested in a component of narrative shift that is a little messier than metrics.


It’s why people sometimes make this face >> (:/) when I say I do movement PR, and secretly I also think it’s why I can never get organizers to tweet.


It’s what happens when you are sort of successful in narrative shift — but nothing else changes.

Suddenly, politicians start using words from your movement in their speeches and press releases, nonprofits adjacent to your work add words like ‘liberation’ to their mission statements, or the inboxes of people in the movement are suddenly super full but the structural goals they were working towards don’t move.
Has this ever happened to you?

All the words sound right, but the policies and the people in power stay the same. The narrative shifted, but that’s all that changed.


In our neoliberal world, it’s way easier to ‘change the conversation’ than it is to change power structures.


How do you measure narrative shift in your social movement/organizing group/sphere of influence?


Does it matter if pieces of your ideal narrative don’t quite make it all the way to the big screen/neoliberal capital ‘D’ Dominant Narrative?


Do you see narrative shift as a precursor to material change or change in power structures?


How does narrative shift, and any measurement of narrative shift, fit into our understanding of power?


Do you think that metrics for ‘narrative shift’ make the difference between sucking and not sucking at communications?


If Rahm Emanuel says ‘displacement’ on his podcast, but continues to push for the same type of policies he always has, does it matter?


And the biggest question: is there such a thing as ‘un-cooptable’ narrative shift?

On good days, I think it’s possible.


It requires:

Thoughtful (if not well resourced) goal setting around frame/audiences in all of our organizing,

Training/support around communications for as many different people as is possible,

Recognition that if we believe we can change reality, then “good messaging” doesn't exist,

Deep power analysis beyond our targets: what do our people think, listen to, care about?


A bunch of stuff that I’m missing/have never even considered, that I hope you tell me about in the comments.

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