By Joel Dignam
Joel Dignam attended Progress 2019, Australia’s largest social change conference, and heard from keynote speaker, Anat Shenker-Osorio, a communication expert, author and researcher from the US.
If messaging experts were bands, then Anat Shenker-Osorio would be The Beatles, all of them, including their subsequent solo careers. Which is to say that it’s a pretty amazing experience to see her on stage and hear what she has to offer. Anat, despite having spoken at Progress several times, always manages to be a spellbinding speaker, in addition to delivering sage advice.
And your correspondent is particularly appreciative of the fact that Anat’s sage advice can be pithily packaged into three simple points, which I summarise below. These points are:
- Politics is not solitaire;
- Empathy, not sympathy; and
- What you fight, you feed.
So let’s get to it.
Politics is not solitaire
Anat started by describing how the right has combined three messages into a coherent story:
- Racial fears,
- Economic resentment, and
- Disgust with government.
With this approach, the right uses racial fears to deflect responsibility for economic insecurity (which, spoiler alert, is actually due to their policies) to the ‘other’, helping to cultivate disgust with government which ultimately serves their agenda.
Anat emphasises that we can’t respond by speaking just to economic or racial issues: “We need to make race and class inseparable.” (As she said this I could just imagine the team at Democracy in Colour shaking their fists in appreciation.) Anat’s explanation is that you need to supply a story to explain why the disparity exists – otherwise, your audience will fill in that answer for themselves. So when we point out the economic disparity, we need to describe the structural factors that cause this disparity. Otherwise, people arrive at the easy explanation of individual responsibility.
Thus, to counter the right’s narrative, Anat proposed a story based around:
- Cross-racial solidarity,
- Shared prosperity, and
- Government for all.
A few quick thoughts
Anat used some great examples to show how this messaging could be done, also referring to evidence from her empirical work to show that explicitly mentioning race is more persuasive than omitting mention.
However, I think it’s worth asking how analogous the Australian context is to the US context. Certainly, in both countries, we see similar right-wing narratives at play. However, I’m not sure if the race-baiting in Australia is as explicit and must be confronted as directly. Further, Anat gave the example of using a phrase like “whether you’re white, black, or brown.” This may go down fine in the US, but I feel like it would be risky and naive to adopt such phrasing directly. Overall though, the point stands, and many Australian organisations would benefit from talking about race in a more integrated way.
Empathy, not sympathy
Anat’s second point was that instead of encouraging pity for affected communities or individuals, we should be emphasising their humanity and relatability. We should present people as “multi-dimension, fully rounded beings”. “We cannot win,” she said, “by making people feel sad and sorry [for victims].”
Anat gave the example of how messaging has changed in Australia around people detained on Manus and Nauru. In previous years, communications aimed to evoke sympathy, emphasising the horrors that people were suffering. More recently, communications have emphasised the humanity of these refugees, enabling us to “see ourselves in each other.” This has resulted in previously unthinkable movement around, for example, getting women and children out of the camps.
A few quick thoughts
This point resonated with me, particularly because it’s something I don’t always do well in my own communications. I work with people who are often in adverse circumstances. Often I’m so appalled that I want to highlight these injustices, the indignities that people are made to suffer. But maybe this isn’t the way to go. Instead, we can focus on the whole of a person and their humanity, helping our audience to relate to them and feel a connection.
What you fight – you feed
Anat has apparently made this point several times and feels like us Australians are beginning to respond. But, to quote Barack Obama in his 2004 DNC speech, “we have more work to do.” The basic idea is that you should avoid engaging in negation (which gives your opposition free air time). Instead, you should say what you are for, what you are against. It’s sort of actually that simple.
A few quick thoughts
I mean, really, it’s 2019, “Don’t Think of an Elephant” has been out for almost fifteen years, but I don’t blame Anat for needing to make this point. In addition to the free air-time point, evidence also indicates that denials can strengthen belief in the idea being denied (the “backfire effect”). So every time I see a sign saying “Seeking asylum is not illegal”, or “Journalism is not a crime”, I cringe and die a little bit on the inside.
There are some organisations, however, that are really doing a good job of this. New organisation Original Power has a whole lot of stuff to be opposing but does a great job of emphasising their positive vision for self-determination and land rights. Community Power Agency does an amazing job of talking about the opportunities from the clean energy transition. And Australia Remade, which I also learnt more about at Progress, offers a pretty amazing positive vision for Australia.
Finally, saying what you are for is about more than just the policy outcome you seek. It’s more powerful to talk about the benefit of that outcome, or the difference it will make in people’s lives. When NZ recently introduced minimum energy efficiency standards for rental housing, it was called the “Healthy Homes Bill”. That’s what I’m talking about. Whatever you may be working towards, try thinking about the difference it will make and feature that in your communications.
That’s it for summarising Anat’s keynote at Progress 2019. But the good news is if you saw Anat’s presentation and loved it, or you missed out and you want more, you are in luck! Other Anat resources are in the Commons Library, including my review of her book “Don’t Buy It”, which is an excellent guide for progressive messaging on the economy. She also prepared a short, very worthwhile document, following the 2016 election: “Messaging this Moment” which is a priceless distillation of her wisdom with applications well beyond the US.